copyright © 2007 Judith Moriarty
[Commentary followed by A Personal Reflection of Christmas Past]
“In Manhattan the income gap between the rich and poor is greater than in Guatemala, and within the U.S. is surpassed only by a group of 70 households near a former leper colony in Hawaii.”
~ Gap Between Rich and Poor in New York City Grows Wider, By Sam Roberts. The New York Times. December 25, 1994
What is a home? It is easier to understand homelessness by taking a minute to define a home. A home is a space of our own that is considered to belong to us. We may not have a whole house, a whole apartment, or even a whole room, but we have our own space. It is secure: we know where we are going to sleep tonight; we know that ‘home’ is going to be there when we get there. It is safe. Although no safety is perfect, we have a way to lock our home, to control who comes in when we are there and when we aren’t. We can leave our belongings at home and have a reasonable expectation of finding them safe when we get back. We are sheltered from rain and cold. We have a means to warm ourselves. We have a bed. We have a way to store and prepare food. We have cold and hot running water, a toilet, and a shower or bathtub to wash ourselves. We can come and go at our own choice. Home is where you put your stuff.
While the media portrays (deliberately) the homeless as ‘losers, drunks, addicts, the mentally ill, and parasitic segment of society – too lazy to work’; this is a rather shallow simplistic view! It lumps everyone suffering a crisis into the same stereotype. True, many are homeless due to drinking, drugs, mental illness, and poor work ethics. But then, many are drunks and dope addicts, who aren’t homeless.
At one time people were identified as the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor. A family down on their luck, due to a death in the family or crisis of unemployment etc were seen as ‘worthy’ of intervention. The able bodied, who found themselves homeless, were seen as bums – or lazy ner’ do wells. FDR’s New Deal – and WWII saw many government housing projects built. These were seen as a stopgap measure, until people could recoup their losses/ and for veterans returning from war. They were mostly occupied by whites. These folks went on to gainful employment, and in many instances became homeowners. The project, during the 60’s onwards, became dumping grounds for the poor (mostly minorities). Repairs and maintenance were disregarded. These ‘hives’ became despairing hovels filled with crime.
Today many of these projects are being torn down or left vacant. Vouchers for housing have been cut, with many of the working poor left with no place to secure affordable housing. Even in the best of times, a person (family) could be on a waiting list for years before there was an opening. The crisis in America (all communities) today is affordable housing. New York City sees an approximate 10,000 families suffering homelessness (not counting single people) each night. Meantime the un-homeless, contrive different programs, consisting of rules -regulations – and policies, which even a legal student couldn’t decipher. Everyone is agreed that society needs (besides its bankers – brokers – professionals – etc) laborers, clerks, mechanics, janitors, window washers, nursing/hospital personnel, teachers, etc. With rent in many urban areas (even rural America) running upwards of $750.00 to $1000.00 a month (not including utilities) its not hard to see why those making $15,000 to $25,000 a year can easily find themselves homeless.
Once upon a time in small town America; steel mills, paper mills, textile plants, manufacturing plants, the auto industry, sheet metal shops, tool and die shops, farming etc; had people, while not living opulent lives, able to afford the necessities of life. Rents – fuel – medical care – prescriptions – schooling – taxes – cars and homes were affordable. People weren’t made to choose between food or buying exorbitant prescriptions. But then the pharmaceutical, insurance companies and HMOs weren’t writing the legislation! One could afford a visit to the ER or doctor’s office. A Department of Education didn’t exist; throwing down mandates from Foggy Bottom (Washington) demanding increasingly draconian policies, regulations, testing, and social engineering (putting the costs on beleaguered tax payers). It takes money to create obedient, illiterate, passive, groupthink drones, for a future in a Wigget factory or the military.
This ‘mudslinging’, identified as ‘debates’, has shown how far removed those running for office are from the people. NOTHING of any merit (either party) has been accomplished. It’s a game for clowns and opportunists, with each (except for a few) trying to grab the golden ring, on the gaudy, maniacal, carousel, that represents today’s politics. Only in America, do we see the few with their multi-millions, and backers of special interests, able to secure media attention. If the truth be told, the owners of the world have already chosen the next puppet. All this campaigning is mere theater. Note how the few, with any credible message, have been quickly marginalized. Government is now corporate owned and corporate controlled – with the herd encouraged to vote (feminists) for the first woman, or the war crowd, with their law and order mentality, for a Giuliani (911 brought him fame and fortune). Our energy policy ( plotted behind closed doors by oil men) sees oil that was at $28.00 per barrel in 2000 now close to $100. The golden ring means many things to many people. Especially good fortune!
The majority of those running for office are well heeled and have long ago lost connection with work-a-day citizens (or the poor). The Clinton’s arrival in Foggy Bottom now sees them as multi-millionaires. President Bush, who failed in every family backed business, is now sitting on easy street. In a land of 300 million, we’re supposed to believe, that per chance Ms. Clinton wins, (she will – it’s in the bag) we’ll have us 28 years with a Bush or Clinton in office! What’s wrong with this picture?
Many of those in Congress/the Senate; including the various candidates, have secured lobbying jobs for their offspring (family members). Trent Lott is jumping ship. It’s reported that he’s now going to ‘cash in’ (work for a lobbying firm for big bucks). That’s what its really about ——–self-interested – grasping greed. The only thing this gang of hustlers managed to accomplish, is voting themselves yearly cost of living raises, and tax payer subsidized health care.
President Bush/Vice President Cheney (Washington politicians) aren’t worried over the cost of hospital care. No drone in some cubicle reports to their physicians, that such and such a procedure isn’t covered. They are not demanded to have cash in hand when seeing a dentist. Never be poor and have a toothache! You’ll die before receiving aid. Any medical crisis or ache or pain sees Washington politicians (bankers – Federal Reserve officials, lobbyists, corporate robber barons etc, being afforded the best of medical care. President Bush advises (having a physician on hand at all times) that Joe citizen and his family go to the ER. True!
Try being poor or homeless and getting medical help in Super Power nation, U.S.A. Try being a senior citizen, or a struggling family, trying to secure special medications, chemotherapy, or hospital care. Strom Thurmond once spent a month in a hospital resting up! Today the poor will die on an ER floor (Los Angeles) of a perforated bowel, while staff walks around them! Today the poor are made to sit from morning to evening in a free clinic for help (most of these are being closed). Mostly though, people just die. They die in freezing, rat-infested tenements, in abandoned homes, in their cars, and under bridges. They die in rural America, in homes without heat. They die in shelters and on city streets (dumped there by hospitals.) . They die in decaying, unheated tenements owned by slum landlords.
These Washington hucksters aren’t worried over their pensions (also seeing yearly cost of living raises) or heating their homes. Besides their lucrative salaries, they receive all kinds of perks – from medical to housing allowances, fees for their offices, and exotic vacations, which they call ‘fact finding missions’. They don’t care because they don’t have to. How many ‘debates’ do you see being held in an empty steel mill – paper mill – abandoned downtown Detroit, the empty Maytag factory, a shelter, or soup kitchen? They voted these trade deals, which have emptied America of livable wage jobs. That’s why they stay away from the real America! They are serving their corporate sugar daddies by ignoring the slave labor that is being imported (thanks to NAFTA’s failure) to America. These candidates voted for the bankruptcy laws that are now impoverishing Middle Americans in a crisis. Corporations are safe to in declaring bankruptcy and that’s all that counts. They voted (Hillary told Silicon Valley she’ll bring in more) for hundreds of thousands of guest workers (professionals) to replace American workers.
And people wonder why homelessness is increasing at such a drastic level? Today in America, from Seattle – Oregon – to New Orleans, people are now being housed in tent cities! Detroit is filled with thousands of vacant buildings (hotels) and people are living in tents! Why aren’t these newest housing projects of the 21st century being shown on the news as we spend 2 billion a week on war (estimated cost 1.6 trillion+). With winter blasts upon us, try to imagine yourself in that abandoned car – a tent – or living under a bridge. Try to imagine yourself watching (New England) the crowds from the city zooming by, on their way to exotic ski lodges – spending hundreds of dollars a day; to ski down a mountain – drinking, and gouging themselves on exotic meals. Workers at these various resorts are imported guest workers.
It’s hard to imagine living in a land of such wealth under such deprivation. It’s absurd. Maybe that’s why people avoid looking at the homeless? When I’m looking at you, (laying in a doorway) I begin to see me? Who are the homeless? Today, many folks are only a few paychecks away from joining the ‘unworthy poor’ (new label when you lose out in the race). Millions of homes are in foreclosure; due to the greed of bankers – mortgage companies and politicians, too busy feathering their own nests to deal with the crisis.
Who are the homeless? They are the foster children whom its assumed reach instant adulthood at age 18. It’s the numerous abused and battered wives, (children) who’ve escaped a house of mayhem and possible murder. With institutions closed down over the past few decades, its the mentally-ill. Regional crisis centers were supposed to open, but it never happened. People haven’ t stopped becoming mentally ill – its just that now, we jail them or they end up on the street (those without family).
We spent the money meant for the mentally ill/housing etc; on raises for Washington – billions for war – exotic vacations – golf courses – space stations – crumbling levees – studies of the sex lives of beetles – bridges to nowhere – a museum for Woodstock – and mercenary forces ($1,200 a day) etc. There just wasn’t any left over for everyday people! Who are the homeless? It’s Virginia a senior citizen I found on a park bench, who lost her home due to the catastrophic illness of her husband (he died). When she went for help, she was offered a bus ticket out of town (greyhound therapy).
Who are the homeless? It’s the homeless veterans ( approximately 192,000) of all wars. It’s James (Korea) who I found under a bridge (his nephew had stolen his SS checks). It’s Billy the young man I found in a city park in a johnny-coat soaked with urine. Billy with clubfeet, spina bifida, and a colostomy, had been dumped on the street by a hospital. Who are the homeless? It’s Martha crippled with arthritis, Danny a foster boy, Henry and Joe, WWII veterans, Mr. Elliott, beaten to death in his wheelchair (WWII naval photographer) by an illegal immigrant dishwasher, looking for crack money. The stories go on and on. No the homeless are not all ner’ do wells on welfare having a half dozen kids! There are numerous lazy, drunken, drug addicts of wealth. You don’t hear the label ‘worthy or unworthy rich’. President Regan, from the warmth of the White House said that the homeless preferred the great outdoors.
Depending on the luck of the draw in life; the rich or well-connected citizen, is protected from the harsher elements of being set outside the city gate. Wealth and a proper family name (or profession) exempts them from being labeled (except as eccentric). If you’re a starlet – gladiator sports star – relative of a politician – or Al Gore’s son etc; you don’t end up in jail . You end up in a $48,000 seaside rehab center to escape the ‘stress’ of a life. Forget all the advantages these folks were offered. The stress of being coddled, pampered, and excused, from any and all responsibilities, takes its toll – so we are told? Drunk or no drunk, heck instead of ending up in a shelter you could find yourself in the White House. It’s all in how the life’s cards are dealt ! Most of the rich and famous you see on the nightly news, involved in numerous drug or drunken events, would be laying in the gutter today if not for money!
Homeless for Christmas
It was a cold – sleety night in a large corporate Ct. city. Gentrification had torn down neighborhoods (affordable housing); to make way for glass towers and a huge windowless mall, consisting of upscale boutiques and specialty stores. The homeless were not permitted to roam its various floors seeking warmth during the days.
I had written a play, “Homeless for Christmas” which I put on in the pocket park entryway. The manger scene consisted of Anna (Mary) a Native American Indian ( homeless due to sexual abuse) – Carlton ( Joseph) from Jamaica, and Matthew (Baby Jesus) my three-month-old nephew. Alicia (littlest angel) stood behind them in her white gown with tinsel halo. Mary was attired in an old lace curtain and Joseph in an Indian blanket. The three Wise Men, could be seen approaching from the far end of the park, with their shopping carts, bearing gifts for homeless Jesus. They were three homeless veterans. As the crowd of homeless folks sang. ‘ Away in a Manager’ the three veteran Wise Men presented the Holy family with gifts of canned food, a blanket, and a bouquet of poinsettias .
A few shoppers stopped for a moment but then rushed on to buy those last minute gifts in the climate controlled mall. When the play ended, we passed out (the vets and myself) toys to the numerous homeless kids and those from the tenements. Disney had donated $10,000 worth to me. This was their way of saying they were sorry. A month before they had come out with a homeless doll called, ‘ Steve the Tramp’. Steve carried a large board (with plastic nails). On the package it said, “You’ll smell him before you see him.” I organized a protest at the mall (called all the media). I made a huge poster depicting Mickey Mouse with huge bulging blood shot eyes holding a spiked board. My sign read, “Mickey Rat – You’ll Smell Him Before You See Him.” Disney took the doll off the market immediately and had a truck deliver tons of toys! Protests do work ( at times). I have to say they (Disney) have to be commended for their prompt action.
After our gala play and Disney toys event, the kids returned to the decaying tenements (far from the mall) . The remainder of my homeless crowd returned to the dingy shelter. There’s nothing sadder during the year than to spend Christmas at a shelter. There’s something about the hustle and bustle, holiday crowds, festive lights and Christmas caroling; that makes the humiliation, the hopelessness, the alienation, all the more painful. I could relate, as I remembered when my dad (factory closed) relocated us from the mountains of Pennsylvania to Connecticut. He had secured a job in a Catholic hospital as their boiler room engineer. We arrived in Ct with nothing but our meager suitcases of second- hand clothes. I hated Ct from the first moment I saw it. I promised myself when grown that I’d leave. I did.
We had to stay in a single-room occupancy hotel until my dad could save enough to get us an apartment. That took some months. I remember that Christmas. I pushed aside the cheap plastic curtains on the one window and watched the shoppers laden down with gifts. I had decorated the plastic tulip plant on our dresser with some tinsel, from the manger scene at a nearby church. It’s a surreal kind of feeling being on the outside watching others go about life’s routines – joys. You feel like your watching a movie – unable to join the happy actors on stage.
A shelter is a place where nobody owns anything and no spot is special. It is dreary and joyless. The noise is deafening and the stench from unwashed humanity unbearable at times. If despair had an odor, it could be found in a shelter. Christmas (small town America) was once a time of neighbors on downtown streets. In the luminous glow of Christmas lights, children played catching snowflakes on their tongues. There was a hushed silence, as neighbors gathered around the Nativity in the park and sang ‘Silent Night’. Today the parks are empty. Many Nativity scenes in the climate of political correctness (ACLU with nothing better to do) are gone. All religious language is now banished. Christmas is now the Holiday Season; with grotesque elves – cartoon balloon parades – and safe secular songs. It’s now secular holiday with the focus on retail sales. The biggest issue now, is how to choose amongst all the toxic toys imported from China!
Perhaps it’s the deprivation, the poverty, the degradation or just plain awfulness, of a small family huddled in the darkness of a stable, that is abhorrent to some in today’s materialistic world? There was no room in the Inn, but there was room in the stable. The Inn is the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly/moneyed, the rallying place of the popular. The stable is a place of outcasts, the ignored, the forgotten, the almost impossible things. Divinity is always were we least expect to find it.
I remember a past Christmas at the shelter. The faces; white, black, and some gray ; from weariness or illness. They were etched in stoic longing and loneliness. The remnants of the donated food (office parties) lay untouched on plastic trays. The muted sounds of “Joy to the World,” echoed forth from a blurred black and white TV. Some covered their ears, some wept, some hummed along, eyes closed. Perhaps they were remembering a time long ago when they belonged and were loved?
Teresa, her bruised face swelling from a beating on the street, lay in a crumpled heap on the bench. As I put a blanket on her thin shaking body, I wondered that she hadn’t been killed as yet? (Note – Teresa was murdered five months later for her canning money – near the city’s yacht club). Henry, an elderly Black gentleman, brandishing his cane through the crowded community room, looked like an escaped scarecrow on the lam. In a whirlwind of decaying leaves, falling off his outlandish attire, he demanded better service or the Mayor would hear about it. Martha, eyes rolling back in her head, clutched her Christmas package of socks and gloves in her crippled hands, all the while singing her own song that had no beginning and no end. Margaret (middle aged) her dirty blond hair pulled back in a severe bun – thumped her Bible damning everyone to hell for their sinful, slothful ways. Having no dentures, she’d worked diligently one night cutting strips from a two-liter Pepsi bottle. With a razor blade, she cut the appropriate notches, so that it had the appearance of teeth. She painted them with white- out, then affixed the flexible strips to her upper and lower gums with denture adhesive. As long as she didn’t eat, she was fine.
Richard, pacing back and forth, became more and more agitated with each dire warning from Margaret. He finally turned, and in his affected French accent, pronounced that the finer hotels he was accustomed to staying at, would never allow such rabble in their establishment. Richard had existed on a family trust fund for years. It ran out and he was left stranded on the streets.
Daniel, a small fastidious man, like a nervous ferret, hovered in the shadows of the outer hallway. Daniel felt that as long as he kept his distance, he wouldn’t be identified as being a part of the unwashed and unwanted. Frank with his thick coke glasses was once a prosperous businessman. He suffered a mental breakdown and now imagined himself a secret agent for the CIA. Every morning at 4:00am, he would leave messages near the transformer at the train station. In turn, he told me, he’d get directions for his next job from the obituaries in the New York Times.
In a world of liposuction, health clubs, marathons, gated communities, designer clothes, decorators, tented wine parties etc, those seen as flawed are relegated to the outer darkness. In a throwaway society, life’s rejects (seconds) are tossed – much like litter. We’re a disposable society. The intimacy of small town America is gone. We now exist in isolated cocoons: of poverty – wealth – war – prisons – raging protests, and daily messages of fear. I suspect, that should the nation suffer a crisis , that only the homeless will survive. It’ll be just another day for them.
Christmas ends: All was silent in the shelter as the midnight service drew to a close. A last burst of song washed over the heaps of broken humanity from the Washington Cathedral choir ———“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep; God is not dead; nor doth He sleep! The wrong shall fail. The right prevail. With PEACE on Earth, good will to men!”
Gap Between Rich and Poor in New York City Grows Wider, By Sam Roberts. The New York Times. December 25, 1994