September 23, 2013

Attitudes & Values: A Story of Two Men on Tampa's Streets

I wanna tell you a story and I also want to respect our friends who come to the Well on a regular basis. When we tell stories about our interactions we change the names of the characters so as not to betray their trust.

Frank and Peter are two men who have been on the streets for quite some time. They would both probably fit the description of being 'chronically homeless'. Frank is tall and slender, Peter is shorter and much more stout. Frank tends to smile and tell jokes while Peter has a bit of a 'mean mug' and tends to scowl and say 'everything sucks.' I love them both. Neither of these two men are delusional as far as I can tell and I have known them both for over a year.

They are both intelligent and they both have some weaknesses too. They are very different from one another and they also have a lot in common, as most who are experiencing life on the streets do. They both get harassed by the Tampa Police and sometimes find themselves in jail. They both find themselves begging to get the things they need and/or want. They both know how hard it is to find a place to 'shit, shower & shave' as my father is so fond of saying. They both sleep on concrete most of the time. They are both baby boomers. They are both people who know what rejection feels like.

They are also very different as individuals. I think this story illustrates a major difference between the two men.

Frank walked into the Well the other morning and with a big smile on his face said "I just got back from vacation!" Having a hunch what he meant I asked, "Really? where did you go?" "Falkenburg!" he exclaimed. For those of you who are unaware, Falkenburg is one of the main jails in Tampa where so many of our neighbors are taken when caught committing a crime or living while homeless. "Was it nice?" I asked. "Well, no, not really but it's better than being on the streets. I was able to get showered up, eat and look..." He holds out his hands, "I even got my nails trimmed!" He said he was "kicked out before they served breakfast" the same morning I saw him. He was looking for a coffee and a bagel and was so happy we had plenty to offer that morning. Frank is a cool guy and he always sees the best in any situation. He is one who would never throw too big of a fit about...well anything, really. The thing is that for as long as I have known Frank he has done this from time to time. I remember one week that the weather was gonna be particularly bad and Frank went and bought a big ol' beer, threw the brown paper bag away, walked right over to the police and started chugging. He later told me about that incident, "It's the only way to get in out of the storm and plus I could use a few nights of good rest and a shower."

Now Peter also knows how important it is to get "in out of the rain" from time to time and get a good night's sleep. His approach is quite a bit different. He will panhandle and sell palm roses and anything else he can think to do as he saves every last penny until he can afford a weekend in a motel. Talking about being in a hotel might be the only thing that really makes him light up when we talk. He just so hates his situation and experiences that he will spend every minute of every day dreaming of that one or two nights in an air conditioned room watching TV after taking a long long hot shower. Peter knows Frank and just cannot understand why Frank would possibly want to go to jail. Peter does get arrested from time to time, because, well being homeless is a crime in Tampa, but he finds no joy in it at all. He hates getting arrested and going to jail, as most people do.

What struck me about Frank's happy attitude about his vacation in county jail is that Frank is always happy. The man loves Jesus, (he also loves beer) tells jokes, makes others smile and is generally a really really good man. Frank is happy everywhere....even jail. It's as though the peace of God transcends his circumstances. So, when it rains, "Ah, I think I'll just go to jail today." No worries at all. Peter, on the other hand hates being in jail, but if I'm honest he hates it just about everywhere else as well. Now I gotta say his life is really hard and I don't blame him at all for having a chip on his shoulder. None of us can really say that we wouldn't if we were in his shoes...or lack thereof. Other than the way he talks about the motels, that he very rarely can afford, "everything sucks." When I see him and say "Hey Peter, hows it going," he scowls and grunts. If he gives any reply at all in words I will bet anything the statement includes the word "SUCKS".

There are two points of reflection I want to make about this story and I think the first is obvious, attitude really makes a difference. These two men have really hard lives. I have watched them struggle and face difficulty after difficulty. They have reasons to be bitter and grumpy in my opinion. Frank seems quite content though. Contentment, it seems, has very little to do with the conditions in which you live. I know some really unhappy people who own a lot of things and live in comfort all the time, they neither appreciate what they have nor do they have any real joy to speak of. Then there is someone like Frank, who has almost nothing and sleeps most nights on the concrete, he makes wealth seem to have less to do with what you have than it does with an absence of want.

The other point of reflection I will leave for you to chew on. It costs roughly $50.00 per day to keep Frank or Peter or anyone else in the jail. That's $1,500.00 per person, per month. Maybe I'll post about that another day.

September 19, 2013

Firm Believers

My friend Chynnah is a runner. She is always going running somewhere or returning from running somewhere on Bayshore or around downtown. And there's often a small group of people in tow. That's because she's also a friendly person who loves people. Like, as friendly with strangers as I am cold and standoffish, which is saying something. 

There is a decent amount of people on the streets downtown, people who get treated not-so-friendly. Chynnah runs downtown, and she notices this. So she starts slowing down to talk with people who she would pass by. She gets to know their names, their stories, and also their needs. She brings snacks and water with her for her friends. She asks if they need anything so that she can bring it next time she comes by. She always remembers. She offers to pray with them. She is in no hurry, and is as engaged in the conversation as if she has nowhere else in the world she'd rather be, which for her is true. 

She invites other friends to come with her. It's better to go out as a pair for safety reasons, especially as a friendly young woman. She refers to her and her companions who reach out where they work out as 'firm believers'. Get it? Sometimes she has other people to go out with her, but sometimes not. She goes anyway, just because the need is there. I try to dissuade her from doing it alone, but she's pretty stubborn. Something is wrong with her, I think. 

Something isn't wired in her the way it's supposed to be. We are supposed to be able to ignore others' needs when they get to be too much or too inconvenient, or even dangerous. When the person is too difficult or unpleasant or just different from us, we're supposed to be able to tune out their existence, to not see them. This way we can carry on with our own business in relative peace of mind. For her, the more imposing the need, the more she pays attention to it, or rather to him or to her, the person whose face normal people turn away from. She can't not go to them. 

She keeps coming back each week on Thursday nights, but not so much for the run anymore. The people are much more compelling. You see, my friend Chynnah is a runner, but more than that she is a friendly person who loves people. And that is all she needs to do the work of God.

If I can stop one heart from breaking, 
I shall not live in vain; 
If I can ease one life the aching, 
Or cool one pain, 
Or help one fainting robin 
Unto his nest again, 
I shall not live in vain. 
                    -Emily Dickinson

September 13, 2013

Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers On Drugs

People talk about the poor a lot. Frankly, it gets tiring. Political candidates, preachers, local city council, authors of the Bible, solicitous charities, all have something to say about the poor, all which the news channel repackages in the most interesting, if not entirely accurate, way possible. Often you'll have some numbers quoted, like these:
Among SNAP (food stamps) households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children.
96% of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food, 83% of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 42% of poor households actually own their own homes. The average poor American has more living space than the average Swede or German.
There are 47% who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That's an entitlement...These are people who pay no income tax. 47%t of Americans pay no income tax...I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
The polemics come both from people who love the poor and from people who do not. Truth be told, I give a little more credibility to the ones who do love, and that's my bias, but we all misrepresent things. Oftentimes the chronically homeless are used as an image or example or arguing point when the issue is about poor people in general. (Side note: if you use an image of a homeless man, he should be one of your friends, and you should ask his permission.) But the biggest and most contentious topic about the poor is the question of Why. And here's where it gets really sticky. There are complex reasons, both personal and societal, obvious and subtle, for why people are poor or homeless or otherwise struggling. So many can be at work, overlapping as relevant factors.

  • There aren't enough jobs. 
  • He's lazy. 
  • She smokes pot. 
  • They got behind on the rent and were evicted. 
  • She has mental illness.
  • He's a jerk who can't get along with people. 
  • He was screwed over by his buddy.
  • She got pregnant/He got her pregnant. 
  • She just got out of an abusive relationship. 
The lines between reasons, blames, and excuses are blurred, and it takes a lot of work just to sort out the causes of one person's poor life circumstances. Upon initially getting all up in this ministry-among-the-poor heezy, I figured that my preconceived notions would be disproved and that I would find out what people are really like. It turns out that the Romneys and the Bruce Wrights are both correct. Poor people, if we're going to lump them all together, are both hardworking and lazy, oppressed and irresponsible, honorable and shameless. They are inspirational people and welfare queens. Because they're people, for goodness' sake. That's not to say that there aren't some definite patterns and themes weaving through this diverse group, it's just not so easy to sort out the causes and effects of poverty. And this is where it gets tiring.

It's not terribly tiring to walk alongside a person as they sort through their own complex of factors. Faith, hope, and love apply and they sometimes surprise you, either with change in the person you are serving or in your ability to carry on. Sneaky divine attributes. What is tiring is talking about these things as if they matter in any other context besides that of a person's life. A person whose story you are listening to, or who you're helping with paperwork, or who needs to mend a hurt relationship with God or with another person. Other than actually caring for a person, we needn't care how culpable are the teenage immigrant welfare mothers on drugs. (See video below)

In all the rhetoric, it feels like a case is being made for or against the poor. A case to prove that they deserve help or sympathy or dismissal or condemnation. And that's where you lose me. Because my example, my model, my bar to shoot for is Jesus as storied in the Gospels. He called, taught, healed, fed, exorcised, and enlightened without any concern for whether a person deserved it. He commanded to love and serve each other without qualification, even presenting obedience to this command to be the basis for final judgment. His compassion leaned towards those places where compassion was not likely to be found already. He crossed over lines of ethnicity, social and economic and religious status, and moral standards. He loved without condition, and in this he showed us the Father.

We don't serve people because they deserve it, any more than we deserve what we have. We serve people because that is love as shown by Jesus. And it is compelling, and profoundly hopeful, and sometimes it changes lives. But never is it ours to dispense as we see fit. Always it is ours to dispense as we see need. No other qualification is necessary. Wisdom, earned over the years through active engagement, may teach us better how to love, but it will never have anything to say about whether or not to love. That question has been settled definitely by Christ. And it has nothing to do with deserving.
“The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

And now for something completely irreverent. [CAUTION: Strong language and sarcasm below]

September 6, 2013

Free to Choose

Yesterday afternoon I was breaking down cardboard boxes in the back room of the Free Market. It's our food pantry, clothing closet, and toiletry supply store all rolled into one. We lay all of the food out like a grocery store, or really more like a corner convenience store (it's small). It would probably be more efficient if we organized the food into basic categories like breads, proteins, vegetables, etc., and then packaged them all up into a ready-made bag that we could just hand to people and say, "Here it is, have a nice day!" That would take maybe one minute of our and their time, and we could move on to the next person. But we do it another way.

We set everything out and let people take their time shopping. It's a pale imitation of going to a supermarket, but that's what we shoot for. The idea is to let people have a choice in what they get. It's a dignity that many of us take for granted. We can go to the big grocery store and shop for food, deciding for ourselves if we're going to get cereal or brownies. Personally, I like to make bad decisions of the Krispy Kreme variety with a side of chocolate milk and a dash of cigarettes. Menthol, please and thank you very much. And I have the freedom to do just that, if I so choose.

That being said, we're in no position to criticize other bigger, probably better run organizations that more efficiently distribute groceries. It's just that we're small and so we can get away with doing it this way, at least for now.