“Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche
I recently spent a few days in Washington, D.C. I have been to our Capital before, but this time I had a few hours to play tourist. Two of my law partners and I strolled the National Mall and surrounding area. Seeing the Capitol, White House, museums and other landmarks, one of my partners noted that it made her proud of her country. Indeed, one would have to be a jaded American not to feel the same way. I know I did.
I was in Washington on business. I had been asked to speak at a conference at the United States Department of Labor. Such things, of course, make one a big deal.
As we walked from our fabulous hotel two blocks from Capitol Hill, we approached several workers preparing for their day. They wore hard hats, boots, work gloves and those reflective vests which one hopes draw the attention of distracted drivers. These men were assembling scaffolding on the sidewalk and running industrial extension cords for whatever project awaited them.
As we neared the workers, I noticed that were negotiating their way around several piles of trash on the sidewalk. I thought it was a shame that among all those impressive sights, our nation’s capital couldn’t keep its sidewalks clean.
Then I saw the feet. They were sticking out from under a pile of carpet felt. Then I saw another pair beneath a pile of rags and plastic. Between the feet was a body. Wedged between two buildings was another man, swaddled in rags and staring blankly. These could have been corpses or garbage, but they weren’t. They were people–men huddled against the elements, awaiting nothing.
My concern that morning was that my feet hurt from the previous day’s sight-seeing. I also had my talk to give. This, of course, was very important, too. I was living a world away from those fellows.
The day before, I had walked by that same spot and noted that the building housed the Mitch Snyder Arts and Education Center for the Homeless. I’m embarrassed to admit that my reaction had been to dismiss this as foolishness. What kind of do-gooder thinks the homeless need art? I even cracked a joke about it to one of my partners. This Mitch Snyder must have been some rich guy who thought art would help. How about some beds?
When we walked back to our hotel several hours later, the scene was much the same. The workers were still working. The piles of humans were still there, too. Pedestrians disinterestedly passed both. We crossed to the other side of the street. On that side, those piles didn’t exist.
It struck me that’s how my life works. I live in suburbia. I have a job. And a family. Those men don’t exist in my world, although even in the college town of Lexington, Kentucky, I am no more than a 15 minute drive from them.
Who are these people? Most assuredly, they are wracked by some combination of mental illness, addiction and poverty. We know that many of them are military veterans–the same men we breathlessly laud for their service to our country, reduced to nothing so much as refuse. In fact, one would expect common garbage to be removed from the sidewalk. People, it seems, are a necessary evil.
At this point, one might muse “There but for the grace of God go I,” the well-known idiom attributed to 16th century martyr John Bradford as he saw prisoners being led to execution. How many of us really believe that? Not many, I suspect. You may be imbued with an arrogance that you are somehow protected. Family, friends and God will shield you from this fate.
I no longer believe that I am either graced or protected. At the risk of offending my readers, I have no use for a God who arbitrarily graces me while He curses my brothers. If I embrace that I am so special then I must also accept that others–through no fault of their own–have been ignored or even damned by that same God.
Those men on the street have families. They are sons, siblings-even parents. They have had friends and lovers. Each story is different but all share a common thread. Somewhere, somehow, they fell to the point where I saw them in Washington or in Las Vegas on New Years Day this year or here in Lexington.
I learned about some of these men from a friend of mine. He lived this same life years ago. Born to parents who neither wanted nor loved him, he suffered a childhood of abuse and neglect. In his teens, he was homeless and a budding alcoholic and addict. Into adulthood, mental illness gripped him as he drifted from town to town unable to hold a job or establish anything most of us would call a “life.”
The good news is that my friend overcame his addictions and for several years worked and made a life for himself. Fate, though, can be cruel. In the past few years, as he approached middle age, my friend suffered disabling illness which has threatened to take away this life. He gets along as best he can with the help of friends and doctors, and is grateful for all he now has, as meager as it may seem to me. Yet, he will occasionally look at me and ask: “What did I ever do to deserve this?” I have no answer. Now, when I consider all that I have in my life, I ask the same question. I have the same answer.
What of Mitch Snyder? My judgment was wrong. I have since learned that he may well have been the greatest advocate the American homeless ever had. He is credited with forcing the District of Columbia–largely by public shaming–into providing shelters for the homeless. A common tactic was to publicize the funerals of those who froze to death on DC’s streets. His public fasting directly led to the donation of an empty Federal building as a 1400 bed homeless shelter–the largest in America. In the end, Snyder couldn’t conquer his own demons. In 1990, at age 46, he hanged himself in that shelter. His Community for Creative Non-Violence continues his work.
For all his efforts, I suppose Snyder never conquered homelessness, either. Don’t ask me for the answers. I still wonder why I have so much while others have so little. I do know that money alone isn’t enough. If you think this can be remedied by handing out checks or jobs, I disagree. Visit one of your local homeless shelters and talk to the residents. Few can handle money, much less a job. We can do better offering them food and shelter, but that can be limited help. My friend told me that always avoided shelters because they were “too dangerous.”
Snyder was right when he thought that those men on the street should enrage the public, but they don’t. They make us sad, even a tad guilty perhaps, but few of us rage against it. Even worse, a fair number of us condemn such people as drains on society, symbols of those who can’t–or won’t–take advantage of all our great country has to offer. This is, after all, the Land of Opportunity. Each man and woman can do anything he or she sets out to do. If that comforts you or eases your guilt, go on believing it. I’ve come to believe that opportunity isn’t doled out equally nor is success measured the same for everyone. For too many, survival equals success.
A person born to my circumstances has little excuse for failure, while my friend mentioned above can easily be forgiven. I’m not naïve enough to think that we can eradicate homelessness anymore than I would believe that we can assure success for everyone. Nor do I think my observations are great revelations. It’s not like I just discovered this problem, but I don’t think I’ll see it the same again. Something about the juxtaposition of my privileged stroll down the street with men living on that sidewalk gave me new perspective.
If nothing else, the next time I’m patting myself on the back for something, perhaps I’ll consider those men. No one’s life is easy. We all have our trials. I suppose we all run the same race, but many of us had a head start.