Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The American lie

Yesterday morning, as I walked the couple of blocks between the train station and my office, I found a woman curled up on a blanket on the corner of an intersection. Barefoot, the wear and tear on her feet was visible and all her belongings were inside a brown paper bag she kept close to her head. All the while traffic rushing by a few feet from her head.

Early that day, while on the train, I saw the vast homeless camp that was set up along the rails. Composed of scrap wood, metal and cloth and monitored by a single police officer. 

Later in the day I would have a woman around my age approach me as I was exiting the grocery store after finishing my commute back to the other side of the bay. With tears in her eyes, she would ask if I could spare any food for herself and her child, leaving me with half my original groceries.

Finally there was the high school age girl who was begging on the train, who left a package of tissues and a note next to me on the train. 
Hi. I have two brothers. My mom is sick and I have no father or job. If you can please help me for food or for rent. Or if you can any gift card. Thank you and God Bless You!
Part of me would like to tell you what an atypical day yesterday was. How I'm not collecting stories about begging incidents and sights that make my heart hurt. How I don't regularly lose my lunch to someone I find on the street who clearly hasn't been eating on a regular basis. Or that my shopping trips aren't regularly interrupted by someone looking for spare change or a few items of food.

The other part of me no longer cares if those reading this find it hard. Because the truth is that these sights I've been witnessing aren't new; they are just getting more common. 

But the root of this, a very real truth that many still don't like to hear, is how Grey and I came dangerously close to being among this ranks. And we were ignored or silenced because it made those around us uncomfortable. How often we are blamed for the unemployment both of us faced and that the normal equation used to justify the judgement (two PhDs in STEM careers with extensive training who have very little familial support and survived infertility) often leaves those who want an easy out tripped up and uncomfortable.

The United States is a misclassified country. While so many refer to it as a land of opportunity, the reality is we do not have a social safety net to help those living in poverty. It's seen as a moral sin to be living in the lower class, with platitudes being shared among those who have financial security that "education" or "work-ethic" will somehow rectify. And yet the truth is those who are secure have are part of a privileged group that is actually rapidly eroding. An article in the Atlantic about the Birth of the New American Aristocracy illustrates that nicely, sounding a wake-up call to the top 10% of Americans. The truth is we are at a turning point in history where poverty and homelessness are literally on peoples' doorsteps, making it so we can no longer afford to ignore it without dire consequences.

For my part, I'm trying. From a conversation with a man about where to find a local shelter group to buying breakfast for a teen who looks like she's new to the streets. Some days the best I can offer is looking them in the eyes and offering a smile and nod. All the while knowing that it's not nearly enough and it's we're long overdue for communities to start embracing these members, weaving the nets of security and help that are so desperately needed.

Because the lie that we've been telling anyone living in poverty is it's just a matter of doing well in school and not buying lattes is a complete myth. And we need to stop spreading it.


  1. Oh my goodness... This is sobering. Never have I experienced that much of it in one day, but I'm also not in the cities on a regular basis.

    1. I don’t live in the city, but one of the more “suburban” sections of the Bay Area. The homeless and poor are actually being pushed out due to gentrification in the cities as they’ve become fashionable to live in.

      And I will say I didn’t experience this while in Minnesota, mainly due to it not being allowed. The one time I saw someone panhandling in the Twin Cities suburbs, they were quickly moved on by community officers. That and the winters are enough to help deter.

  2. AMEN to this post! It really is a knife-edge between relative economic security (which can be wiped out in an instant) and needing financial help desperately. It's absolutely terrifying. I'm glad you're doing what you can to help people.


  3. It is sobering to realize how precariously the majority of people are living these days... I can't remember the exact stats, but it's a huge percentage of people who are one paycheque away from defaulting on their mortgage or rent payment -- no savings -- and even if you are slightly better off, the loss of a job -- or, especially in the States, a health emergency -- can take a real toll on any savings you happen to accumulate. :(

  4. The Bay Area especially has a very large homeless problem because of the cost of rent in the area. I work on ending homelessness in Chicago but am in regular contact with folks in San Fran doing same/similar work. Getting divorced, losing a job, or having one large medical bill can easily land someone into homelessness. Counties/cities/communities are coming together through local continuums of care to implement a coordinated access or coordinated entry system whereby a person experiencing homelessness is quickly identified, assessed for their housing need, and housed with the correct amount of support needed as quickly as possible. Money from the federal government, states, cities, foundations, etc. is super important, but landlords that are willing to rent to the population are key too.

    1. Your work is insanely important! Sadly, I don't know if many are aware that resources like this even exist and the landlord issue is ongoing given that there's a lot of money in real estate.

      Still, thank you for your hard work.


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