“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”–Irish proverb
Today the burden of our homeless brothers and sisters weighs heavily upon me. After hearing yesterday that dozens of police officers and parks department officials descended upon the Occupy Madison encampment near the Dane County Human Services building, forcibly removed homeless people’s belongings, and relocated their scant few possessions to a park miles away and outside of the city of Madison I grew angrier and angrier as the day passed. The indignity heaped upon these people is beyond my comprehension. They are treated as “other”, as less than human.
Imagine being told that you have to leave your house. Say your house was foreclosed and you get a notice that you have to be out within 48 hours. You don’t have time to even think about where you are going or how to get there if you do know. At 8:00 in the morning police cars pull up to your house. Police enter without a warrant, tell you to get out of the house and march you across the street, and then start to do an inventory of all your belongings. All you can do is watch. Then large trucks pull up and everything you own is put into the trucks and hauled miles and miles away and left at another house with no running water or heat. You are told that either you go to where your belongings were left and you can stay there for a few months or you’ll have to make other arrangements to pick up all your belongings. Of course you have no money and nowhere else to put your things so you go to this other house, against your will, because you see no other choice.
That is pretty much what happened yesterday in Madison. The police and parks department raided the camp, made everyone leave, inventoried belongings and marked each set of items with numbers corresponding to numbers given to the homeless who were living there, and took it all to a park miles away where the county has granted a special permit to stay there until next March. The possessions were left lying on the ground on tarps. The new location is outside the city limits, nowhere near a bus line, and has no running water. This fits in with the continued efforts by the city and county to either make the homeless disappear or at least be invisible so that they don’t offend the sensibilities of those fortunate enough to have a home and those fortunate enough to have money to spend downtown. If the homeless are evicted from the city and the problem isn’t seen then it can more easily be ignored. It’s just a little too inconvenient to have to see people sleeping in downtown doorways when out shopping to put more new home electronics or fancy clothes on the credit card.
As I was sitting at home simmering about the treatment of these already downtrodden people I discovered that there was to be a meeting of the Dane County Homelessness Issues committee at the City/County Building last night. I felt called to go there and testify. I had no clue what I might say or what I would accomplish by going. But I have found that when I feel called to do something I just need to follow that call and let it take care of itself. I went there not knowing what I might say or how I might say it, but confident that the spirit would move me and the appropriate words would find me.
As I was waiting for my turn to speak I realized I did not need to have anything prepared, that if I simply spoke from my heart it would be honest and real and it didn’t need to be more than that. When my name was called I told them that I had felt called to come and speak and that I would do my best to simply speak from my heart. I was on the verge of tears because I was so upset with the whole situation.
I am not sure of everything I said. But the gist of it was this. I have a house that I own. I am fortunate. I am not homeless. But as long as there are homeless brothers and sisters out there my heart does not have a home or a place to rest. And like many, many people in these difficult economic times, I am one or two paychecks away from being in the same position.
I am not aware of all the issues facing either the homeless or the county. The two biggest issues that I keep hearing about and that are standing in the way of making progress are the lack of communication and respect.
What I do know is that those who are homeless are human beings. They deserve equal treatment and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Lately in Madison they have been treated as less than human and talked to in condescending tones by authorities and service providers. We need to treat everyone with respect. There is no excuse for treating anyone as less than fully human. We need to have conversations. Those authorities and service providers need to sit down and talk with the homeless about their issues and try to work together to find solutions. When that happens eyes are opened. I saw a Porchlight outreach coordinator talking with homeless people last week and she acted perturbed by them not wanting to go to the shelter and she seemed defensive about them presenting their issues. But after she actually listened to some people she began to see things in a different way. She listened, really listened, to them. Real dialogue is critical. Giving people five minutes at a committee meeting is not conversation. It’s appreciated but it does not allow for the free exchange of ideas. There needs to be an effort made to seriously sit down and engage in real conversation.
I keep hearing about the problems with current services. These things need to be talked about and investigated. But we also need to look at these issues with a new eye instead of replaying the same old scenarios. If the old ways aren’t working then they need to be fixed and perhaps we need to think of new ways of doing things. We have foster children and foster grandparents. Maybe we could develop a foster homeless program where volunteers take in one or two homeless people and the county provides a little support money for that. Maybe we need to look at all the foreclosed and empty apartments, houses, and buildings, and work with the owners to open them up for people rather than leaving them sit there empty while men and women sleep in tents in the middle of winter. Maybe there are other alternatives. We don’t have to keep doing things the same way if things aren’t working. We need to look creatively at how we might move forward into a better future for the homeless.
Before anything else, though, we need to humanize our homeless brothers and sisters. We need to treat others as we would like to be treated. We need to sit down and engage in real conversation. And we need to remember that we are all part of the human family and that each member of that family deserves and is worthy of absolute dignity and respect.