2005 12 14
By Michael Goodspeed | thunderbolts.info
"Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie, but rather mourn the apathetic, throng the coward and the meek who see the world's great anguish and its wrong, and dare not speak."-Ralph Chaplin
This essay is about homelessness in America -- the bleakest topic I have ever written on. Indeed, when I started this piece about two months ago, the bleakness of my writing was so overpowering that I wasn't able to compose more than a few paragraphs -- reading my own words caused me genuine pain. I realized quickly what the problem was:
I was giving in too freely to my natural tendency toward acerbic polemics. I don't want to waste anyone's time with that, including my own. Personally, I find nothing more odious than an embittered hack who complains about everything while offering solutions to nothing. God knows our country doesn't need another Bill Maher or Ann Coulter spewing ideological hatred.
So you'll understand what I mean, here are the first four paragraphs of this essay in its original form, in which I express my frustration and disgust with homelessness in American cities:
Concrete and glass monuments stand in uniformity as far as the eye can see. These monoliths are hideous, yet they seem to tower in arrogant presumption of their own grandeur. Row upon row of stone, brick, mortar, cement -- a maze of buildings and highrises as lifeless and barren as the chasms of Mars. Scattered about this "concrete jungle" are human beings who seem polar opposites. Some look happy with pretty, shiny faces and toned bodies draped in fine clothing. Others look tragic, so defeated by life that beneath the anguish in their eyes is a glaze of comfort. These polarities walk side by side, and sometimes over and around one another. They don't look each other in the eye.
They live in worlds of their own.
This inhabited wasteland has a name. It's called an American city -- a belching, churning, violent, paved over "land of opportunity" thronged by way too many people in way too small a space. There are hundreds scattered across the U.S., including elephantine ones like Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix. All cities are made different by their unique cultural nuances, but they are made the same by a single factor that shapes all of American culture: an enormous and ever-increasing gulf between the very wealthy and the very poor.
Most U.S. cities are rife with homeless human beings who coexist with the affluent. In the posh downtown areas, hip, young professionals inhabit two-bedroom apartments that go for $1500 a month. Several blocks away, countless others sleep in parks, on benches, or if they're in really bad shape, in the middle of the sidewalk. They are the mentally ill, the addicted, the traumatized, the discarded. They are homeless. HOMELESS. This is not a condition from which one can take a break if one grows weary or bored. It is relentless. Inescapable. A prison. Hell.
How ironic. The American Dream and Hell on Earth are two realities that clash every day in this country. Indeed, I call most American cities "graveyards," because the majority of people I see are not really living. They are just two different classes of zombies: the perpetually driven and distracted "professionals" happily boiling their brains with cellphones pressed against their ears; and the lost souls who drudge through a facsimile of life with no money, few choices, and little hope....
Dead end. I could not take this line of commentary any further. For one thing, I didn't like the way I characterized my fellow human beings in inhuman terms. Referring to any person as a "zombie" is unnecessarily cruel and demeaning. Furthermore, it is hypocritical for me to cast dispersions on others who have done nothing to address the crisis of homelessness. Because honestly, never in my life have I done anything, directly or indirectly, to help a homeless person.
I live in a suburb of Portland, OR that is basically free of visible homeless people. I am only exposed to the homeless when I visit downtown Portland, where they are everywhere -- on the sidewalks, in the parks, in the bus stations, under bridges. Like most everyone else, I do my best to avoid them. I admit that when I look at a homeless person, my knee-jerk reaction is to place blame, to condemn. Even at the sight of an overtly disturbed indigent, I think, "Get a hold of yourself, you lunatic! How hard is it to simply be SANE?!"
Have I ever volunteered at a shelter? No. Have I ever donated food or clothing to a homeless outreach program? No. Have I ever taken the time to intentionally SPEAK with a homeless person, to explore the radical possibility that I might be able to help him or her in some small way?
Certainly not! That would be way too scary -- "those people" are a strange and conniving bunch, you see, always plotting to take advantage of us "normal people" walking in their midst!
But if I am guilty of indifference toward the poorest Americans, some at the highest levels of government seem downright contemptuous. We witnessed bureaucracy's pathetic response in the wake of hurricane Katrina, where thousands of human beings -- almost all extremely poor -- may have needlessly died as the result of sheer negligence and stuporous inaction. Perhaps a contemptuous mindset was revealed in the comments of former first lady Barbara Bush, who stated that New Orleans "refugees" being housed in the Houston Superdome didn't have it so bad, because they were "underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
Contempt for the poor walks hand in hand with contempt for the addicted. Addicts in this country are treated as criminals; non-violent drug users are jailed and stigmatized as substandard humans.
Corporations will not hire applicants who don't submit to drug tests and background checks, adding to a stigma that prevents substance abusers from seeking help. This stigmatization of the addicted is encouraged by many voices in media, including conservative commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Of course, Limbaugh himself has suffered a very public drug addiction, although as far as I know he's never retracted his merciless stance against other addicts.
Why do we tend to view the poor, the addicted, and the homeless with such a sparsity of real compassion? In attempting to answer this question, it is easy to resort to tired arguments that rail against the "evils of capitalism" and "American self-centeredness." But the truth is, for decades now, the U.S. government has spent countless billions of tax dollars in aid to the very poor, and has only succeeded in creating a subculture of millions of Americans who are chronically dependent. Make no mistake, the majority of politicians who support the welfare state do so out of pure self-interest. They know full well that welfare checks do nothing to address the taproot of poverty, which is personal dysfunction. Without the guidance of empathy, it is not possible for anyone -- even the most well-intentioned -- to offer a genuine helping hand to those in need. And if one wants to gain insight into Government's capacity for empathy, all one need do is visit the Post Office. Bask in the glow of that bureaucratic warmth!
Indifference toward the hardships of others stems from the belief in separateness, or the idea that one's own best interests are in conflict with everyone else's. But intelligent compassion arises when one recognizes his intrinsic connectedness with -- and dependence on -- his fellow humans. It is a fact that you and I DO have a personal interest in improving the lives of the neediest Americans. We are taxed by poverty in the form of exploding prisons, an unaffordable and counterproductive welfare state, collapsing public schools, an overburdened health care system, and city streets that are genuinely unsafe.
And here we come to my "punch-line" for this essay, and it will explain the unusual title I've chosen. The "Midnight Stroll" to which I refer is a mission I have tasked for myself based on inspiration I've received from advocacy journalists Barbara Ehrenreich and Morgan Spurlock. Both Ehrenreich and Spurlock have engaged in uncompromising, old-school journalism that entails stepping down from a comfortable soap box and getting dirty in the mud and the blood of the real world.
Ehreneich lived entirely on minimum wage employment as "research" for her book "Nickel and Dimed." And Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's fast food for thirty days for his award-winning documentary "Super Size Me" (and as a result became quite ill). I think that Spurlock and Ehreneich understand that opinions are often shallow and misguided if they are not reinforced by personal experience. Sometimes, to truly understand -- and hopefully empathize with -- others, it is absolutely necessary to walk a country mile in their shoes.
This is my plan: I will leave my home in Portland, OR, on December 26th, after enjoying Christmas surrounded by the warmth of family and friends. I will carry $200 in my pocket, a duffel bag full of some basic necessities (tooth brush, several pairs of underwear, pen and notebook for notes, etc.) and two luxury items: a portable CD player, and a digital camera. I will purchase a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Las Vegas, Nevada. This will cost about $120, so factoring in the price of food and beverages during the trip, I will arrive in Vegas a day later with about $60 in cash. My mission will be to exist on the streets of Vegas for approximately two weeks, without any "dipping" into a personal bank account, or assistance from friends or family.
That does not mean, however, that I will refuse assistance from kind-hearted strangers. Indeed, one goal of this experiment will be to test the allegedly charitable nature both of Americans, and the Universe.
In case of an absolute emergency (i.e. excessive weakness from hunger) I will pawn one of the luxury items for food money. The digital camera will also serve to document as much of the experience as possible (but of course, for a vulnerable person living on the streets to repeatedly flash an expensive camera would be an act of stunning idiocy.)
Why Las Vegas? I had been planning to visit Nevada and Arizona with a buddy of mine for several months, and this will synchronize our trip with my social experiment -- he will arrive in Vegas by car around the second week of January. But also, as many have pointed out, Vegas has come to symbolize the decline of Western civilization -- the triumph of nihilistic egotism over the principles of spirit and service. That is why horror author Stephen King chose Sin City as the site for an Apocalyptic battle of Good vs. Evil in his masterpiece "The Stand." And oh yeah, Vegas was the netherworld where Hunter S. Thompson plunged into a nightmare descent of Fear and Loathing, American style (not that I'll ever write as well as him.)
I believe that if I approach this experiment with the right attitude, it will be personally meaningful for me, and might just produce a story that others can learn from. For clarity, I'm not doing this as a test of my own courage or resolve; that would be moronic. I'm taking the best action I can think of to offer some contribution, however minute, to a better understanding of homelessness (and its many corresponding pathologies) in the United States. And we are in desperate need of improved understanding, and more importantly, empathy for all of our brothers and sisters across this once great land.
Article recieved from Michael Goodspeed