Seattle has long been a magnet for those who live on the margins of society. It’s a prosperous liberal city with a decent track record of caring for its citizens who are in need. The relatively temperate climate makes it easier for those who are without housing to live on the street and in other public spaces. Homelessness hasn’t been criminalized as it has in some cities. There’s an ordinance outlawing “aggressive” panhandling, but not panhandling itself.
People of all ages who haven’t found a place for themselves in society or have lost their place in it, are drawn here knowing they can get by. Many of them are dealing with addiction, mental illness, and, often times, the cumulative effects of discrimination and lack of access to health care, education, and good nutrition.
The neighborhood in which I live, Capitol Hill, is located directly above downtown and has traditionally been a place where nonconformists of all sorts gravitated. Some have had the means to rent or buy apartments or houses and others have been without a fixed address. In the past ten years the city has undergone tremendous growth and gentrification, creating a scarcity of affordable housing and disrupting the informal support networks that had grown up over time. As older housing stock and commercial buildings are razed by developers in order to build high-end rentals for the tech workers flooding into the city, more and more long-time residents are being displaced, many of them landing on the streets.
As I walk around my neighborhood I am continually confronted by people asking for money for food, for booze, and for “weed.” Many of them are young and in small groups (their own support networks); often with canine companions. For many years I lived in cities with car cultures, hence my exposure to such people had been kept to a minimum. When I first arrived in Seattle I told myself that I would give a dollar to anyone who asked me for money. But I hadn’t realized the sheer numbers of people who are on most of the blocks in the business district so soon abandoned my plan as it would have been unsustainable, given my own financial situation.
Now, when I’m asked for money I find myself glazing over. I pretend the person isn’t really there. Or, if they seem to me to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, I tell myself that I shouldn’t be enabling them—that I’d be helping them kill themselves. That may be true, but what I’m really doing is making them into the Other—some subspecies of humanity that exists outside the delineated boundaries of what is an acceptable lifestyle.
I recently read an article by Louis Menand in which he wrote:
When the social structure starts to crack is when the dropouts and the delinquents and the crazies turn up. These are not people who don’t know the rules. These are people who can see, without understanding why, that the rules no longer make sense. But, once people like that are thrown out of the system, once they become druggies or panhandlers or abusers of various sorts, no one wants them back in. They get scapegoated. Individual moral failure is taken to be the problem. It can’t be the system.
What an insightful and challenging statement! Every moment of their lives these nonconforming individuals are cognizant of the fact that they now inhabit a world outside the dominant culture. They realize that the minimal social services being offered them are merely bandages that temporarily staunch the bleeding of deeper wounds that are symptoms of a sickness in our way of life and of misguided values. The underlying societal disease process is not being treated and there is rarely a voice among those in power demanding implementation of the systemic, structural changes needed to cure the disease.
Those on the outside are aware that they’re rejecting the norms to which most people subscribe and by doing so relegating themselves to an existence that imperils their wellbeing and often their very lives. The look of hopelessness and despair on many of their faces bears testament to their knowledge that they will probably never be allowed back into the world that they spurned due to its judgment of them and its inability to find a place for them. Noncompliance is the only weapon at their disposal to counter the brutality of the oppressive system that rejected them for who they are and for their unique understanding of themselves and the world.
Should the marginalized inhabitants of our public spaces wish to return to the world of acceptability and respectability, the system will actually work to keep them on the outside because they know too much.
How they have been living and how they have formed alternative communities is a critique of what most of us so blindly accept as legitimate and, through our participation in the system, help to reinforce, thus assisting in the further ostracization of those who see through the lies and illusions. The emperor empire has no clothes!
As I’ve ruminated on how to be in community with these, my neighbors, I’m reminded of a verse in the Hebrew scriptures where God is giving instructions to the prophet Samuel on how to find the man who would replace Saul as king of Israel: “..for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Yes, we humans tend to view others superficially. We judge them by their physical appearance—what they wear, whether or not they fit standard definitions of beauty, where they live, what they drive, how they speak, etc. Our culture encourages—even forces us—to do this and then to assign value to the person we are sizing up. But we are told that God does not do this. Certainly God makes note of our outer expressions, but what God sees is what’s in our hearts. God can look right through the externals and perceive who it is we are in the core of our being. God can bypass the mess and discern the state of our souls.
It is my prayer that I remember this; that I not be distracted by the outward appearances of my sisters and brothers on the street, but like God, look into their hearts. And when I do that, I suspect I will also see myself.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION OR DISCUSSION
- How do you respond to persons who are homeless or “begging” when you encounter them? Do you ignore them? Pretend they’re not there? Or do you acknowledge them. Do you help them?
- Does “There, but for the grace of God” ever enter your consciousness as you observe those in need?
- Have you ever been perceived as being “other?”
- If you’ve ever panhandled or been homeless, what was your experience with those “on the inside?”
- Harper sleeps in the shrubbery alongside the expensive private school on the next block from me.
- BILLYDAKiDD told me that everything he was wearing he had found in the trash.
- When I asked Avery and Juliet if they were a couple Juliet said they were “just friends” and then laughed.
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