thinking about poverty

flickr: richard masoner
"it's the same thing, from the east coast to the west coast. from mexico to canada," he started. "i been all over... can't make it in one city, can't make it in no city," the old and grizzled houseless man, who identified himself as 'old school' was starting to get a role.

just then a couple walked by, carrying groceries and a case of beer. "you can't spare one o' them drinks for an old man?" old school pleaded, splitting his attention between me, the slouching kid reading nietzsche on the sidewalk and the beer-carriers. i took the opportunity to head off to a coffee shop, leaving behind my soft drink can, and taking with me my confusion, sympathy and mixed feelings for the houseless of this nation.

here we are in the age of slave morality. up is down, right is right and evil is the new good. nietzsche is mad 'cause 'love your neighbor' has made us less awesome--sympathetic instead of successful. he wants us to act in the world to our full capacities, not care for each other in sacrificial and empathetic relationships.

but what's the point of that? perhaps a bit unlike the dead german sociopath i'm reading, i still care a little for the small people in this world. but where to start? how do we navigate broken-ness and addiction? i don't know.

to a lonely and sickly addict on the street, money=drugs. i have tested this time and time again by offering to buy food for those who ask me to "spare change for a bite to eat." consistently, the food is either turned down or set aside amid more pleas for cash. it's a rough position to be in.

i've lived among houseless people for weeks on end on a couple of different occasions. most are on mutiple government assistance programs including social security, food stamps and welfare. in addition, at least in the northern states, churches offer food and other assistance. though i have encountered them, people using their spanging money for food are exceedingly rare.

little people in a big world
it seems to me that strategies for helping those in need work best when they are though of as a solution to a problem. following this line of reason, we would need to think about what the problem was before taking any action toward solution.

'old school' told me that his problem was that he didn't have enough money to get something to eat. later i watched him pull quite a bit of food out of the baby carriage he was pushing around while he chatted with me. while i listened, he told me about his life, and addressed a deeper (perhaps more honest) level of the problem: he couldn't get a job.

but i think its bigger than that. as i started to write this, through the window in the coffee shop across the street i watched the store manager chase off another beggar from the parking lot. he was screaming and waving his arms. she was calling the police. neither was listening to the other.

there's a lot of pressure living on the streets, especially for addicts. loneliness sets in as people start (generally with good reason) to infer that you're un-trustworthy. the drugs make you desperate, and gruff manners and a rough lifestyle can cut off your chances to get a shower and a good meal at times. people start to look down on you, if just because you smell bad.

so there are more problems than just a lack of food. in fact, in my experience oftentimes a houselss person will use the claim of a lack of food as a red herring, a departure from actual issues that is employed to shame the housed people they talk to into helping them with some drug money.

it's been obvious to me for quite some time that giving money to an addict is destructive rather than compassionate. however, there are a lot of more legitimate issues that houseless addicts often deal with:

- lack of work
- heartbreak from divorce
- ptsd (especially from the u.s.-vietnam war)
- loneliness
- class discrimination

so that's a start. i don't want to give up on this.

as ever,



  1. Joel, I have been writing and thinking so hard about poverty lately. So this post is timely! I mean... i think of it a lot, but even more so... especially being aware of my own heart... and especially because we think that Round 3 of Pacifist Fight Club will be about poverty!

    I think that poverty is a heart issue as well as a physical issue. I think heart needs have to be met first. A lot of people in the streets do get involved with drugs because there is a pain (like ptsd or heartbreak) that they don't want to deal with. Drugs are one of the many things that people use to numb the pain (television is one of them, I think). What sucks about being numb is that it is harder to accept love when you are numb.... And on the other side, those of us who could be involved with those in physical poverty but choose not to be involved... we suffer from an inward poverty... that is why we don't offer our time to those in need... because their is usually a fear that stops us... like a fear of wasting our time... self-preservation type of mentalities.... I think that is why we aren't good to each other. Until we address our hearts and why we are afraid or until we allow ourselves to be aware of our needs and the needs of others , we won't change.

    I think, lack of friendship is the deepest poverty. I lost my job the other day, so I don't have a way to pay for food or a house... but I'm okay, because my job isn't taking care of me; the people who love me, the friends I have, are! If anything, I think we start by becoming friends with everyone we meet. We care for the whole person, both the heart and the body... and then I think we will see poverty decrease a little. We are more likely to share as friends, and also, folks are more likely to trust as friends. I think that is the beginning: offering friendship, offering time, hospitality. Friendship. It is simple and complicated as that, as all relationships are.

    I made a friend named Lathia who just got out of jail, he loves me, and even though he is homeless and jobless, his biggest concern and ache is his loneliness.

    I think all the major problems in the world are interwoven. And we start with our relationships with ourselves and one another.

    I think that is why loneliness is so terrible, Joel. Nothing breaks my heart more than that. I wish everyone had a friend, someone to be honest with about the pain and the ache and the hurt of being human. I think the world would be less sad if we are willing to be more vulnerable.

    And maybe it starts before friendship... maybe it starts with that courage: the courage to be vulnerable. People need to know that they can be vulnerable and still loved and cared about. I want a homeless junkie to know that there is always going to be someone that will stick with them as long as the spirit of love is in the world. And, I want a lonely rich man to know that, too. We need to stick around, and be in it for the long haul. In our world, we give up on people too easily. We don't give junkies second chances, and instead of telling them the truth, we just write them off as bad people who waste money.

    What if we told them, "you don't have to buy it this time." Or what if we provided them an alternative. Isn't friendship and solidarity an alternative? That gospel of "me, too."?

    I threw up my thoughts on your comment box. Well, it's been a while. ;)

    I don't want to give up on this either. It means a lot that you care. I believe in you, Joel. I believe in you a lot. I can't wait to see you in a few days!


  2. @rachel:

    thank you for this comment. i am so glad that you care about this issue and are willing to put some effort into thinking about it.

    "I think that poverty is a heart issue as well as a physical issue."

    - agreed. i was taught this growing up. i tend to have to remind myself that it's not necessarily intuitive knowledge

    "I think heart needs have to be met first."

    - i like that statement. to hear bill gates talk about long-term thinkers and short-term thinkers, or to hear jesus talk about 'your sins are forgiven' definitely brings this thought to the forefront for me.

    “Drugs are one of the many things that people use to numb the pain (television is one of them, I think).”

    - i feel like i know part of this from experience. i have turned to television, movies and video games to get away from heartbreak before. it’s all about control for me.

    “What sucks about being numb is that it is harder to accept love when you are numb.... “

    - i am so glad you mentioned this piece of it. this seems to be the case with me so many times.

    i feel like if i don’t become open to the reality of my own heartbreak and troubledness, i will not even have a chance of helping people on the streets.

    “fear of wasting our time...”

    - this one is huge for me. i feel like on one hand, the person wants to get money from me or take advantage of me in some other way. even if i sense that there must be a deeper need that i could help them with - their heartache - it’s a difficult thing to get to. and i mean this especially in the case of houseless people who are accomplished liars. they will often sense you are trying to help them with their hurt, and bring up a half truth about it that leads back to them trying to manipulate you.

    i really have to sympathize with that, though, because the last thing i want to do is bring my hurt out in the open in its full ugliness. i would rather cloud it and filter it through something else.

    “my job isn't taking care of me; the people who love me, the friends I have, are!”
    - i love this!!!!!

    “I don't want to give up on this either.”

    - : ) that is SO encouraging. thanks for your thoughts!