I think there must be something wrong with me Linus. Christmas is coming but I’m not happy, I don’t feel the way I’m suppose to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas I guess… I always wind up feeling depressed. Instead of feeling happy I feel let down.
Charlie Brown, 1965.
“Daddy, is Santa Claus homeless?” asked the little girl looking at the man wearing a cheap looking Kris Cringle outfit. The man, disheveled with an odor of stale alcohol, had a sign that read,“Evicted from the North Pole, please help!” Watching the Charles Shultz characters in the Macy’s display window,the little girl’s father attempted to evade her question by saying, “That’s not Santa, it’s a man in the likeness of Santa who also appears to be impoverished.” The little girl frowned at her father and asked, “What is impoverished?” Unsuccessful at distracting his daughter with the spectacle of Charlie Brown Christmas in the Macy’s display window, he was forced to explain to his daughter the contrast between the manicured shoppers and the unkempt people in makeshift shelters of cardboard and blankets camped on the side walks outside “America’s largest department store” in New York. I was a bit dumbfounded to see this myself, because under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, the down-and-out were forcibly relocated into the outer boroughs.
Responding to his daughter’s assertive questioning, the father awkwardly explained to her that there are a large number of poor people living in America. He also added as he looked at the pedestrians walking by,“Some people have too much in this world and others don’t have enough.”In a language he knew his daughter would understand, he explained that society had failed them. He continued to explain to her the function of social safety nets and how they aren’t large enough to satisfactorily assist everyone that needs help. He mentioned that there are compassionate people that attempt to help the growing numbers of the poor, but without more government intervention, there just aren’t sufficient resources.
The father, who is a close friend of mine, works for a large NGO and has worked on several humanitarian projects in Eastern Europe. However, when he attempted to answer his daughter’s questions he felt empty and inept. It was very difficult for him to explain to a child how in a country such as USA, with so much wealth, there even exists the problem of the homeless. What could he really tell her? Should he say, “There are so many homeless and indigent people in New York because,as a demographic,they have no political capital?”
He thought to himself that our government could learn much from the Danish Housing First Strategy that essentially provides marginalized people with housing before the need for other human services are provided. Once housing is secured, social workers and therapists are assigned to address the more common problems of unemployment, substance abuse, mental illness, lack of family or social networks and prolonged poverty. By satisfying the basic need of housing, the individual has a much greater chance to address the complicated problems that caused them to loose their domicile. After an individual has adequate shelter,that individual is referred to the appropriate human service agencies. Yet the father realized in the current political climate such a progressive initiative is unlikely in America.
Manhattan is beautiful during the holidays, a place of bright and shiny things. People from around the world make an annual pilgrimage to consume. Nostalgic holiday music is amplified on billboards, in stores, on street corners, and on IPhones. Watching people riding in horse-drawn carriages through Central Park or walking down Fifth Avenue one can witness the epitome of brazen consumption. Eyes reflect the illuminating displays at Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Cartier. A gregarious man stops shoppers and hands out advertising postcards for a store that sells furs on 57th Street. To highlight the New York holiday occurrence, one can share the experience of being awestruck by a very tall Christmas tree with the half million shoppers who squeeze into Rockefeller Center.
Walking down town, I smelled the pleasurable aromas from around the world but most noticeable was the familiar smell of roasting chestnuts and Douglas Fir.It looked like most of the robust trees had been picked over, but there were plenty of Charlie Brown Christmas trees available. As tourists stroll easily towards famous landmarks, New Yorkers break into holiday crowds with speed and agility like a choreographed Bob Fosse dance. At the annual Union Square Holiday Market, large mobs of people bottle-necked with cash and credit cards in their hands trying to buy that perfect holiday gift.But, like Charlie Brown, I was feeling depressed.
New York is a place of contradictions. As much as the city can be euphoric, it can also be grossly alienating, depending on one’s place on the socio-economic ladder. For the homeless it is a time of feeling estranged, lonely and depressed; the homeless are pariahs in America and are blamed for their misfortune.They don’t vote and they don’t have a very forceful lobby on Capital Hill, nor do they have the luxury of buying politicians. In the war on poverty, the homeless are collateral damage like mistargeted drone strikes in Yemen.
From what I observed, the homeless population has grown since I left the city over a decade ago. Through my eyes, the people living on the street seemed more lucid and some appeared to have residual traits of middle class lifestyles. I also noticed that there were more women living on the streets than before. A few steps removed from the homeless Santa Claus was a young woman who wrote an eloquent narrative on her cardboard sign describing her adventure fleeing an abuser. She was wrapped in high-tech outdoor apparel that looked highly used but expensive. She looked like she once shopped at REI or expensive mountaineering boutiques. I placed five dollars in her cup, which gave me a sense of futility. The woman was wearing Italian hiking boots, breathable rain pants and a down vest; the same kind of vest that bourgeois bohemians (bobos) are seen wearing as they adventure to Whole Foods. To the woman’s side was an internal-framed backpack with a Gortex shell snugged in an external pouch. If I didn’t know better, I would say that she took a few wrong turns off the Appalachian Trail and ended up in Manhattan. She glanced up at me after adjusting her sign. When I saw her face it was shallow and there was an emptiness in her eyes.
Every few steps I took there was another homeless person. In the East Village, I met a young man that had been hopping trains through the West.One night he hopped a freight car from Tulsa, Oklahoma, believing it was going to Albuquerque. After passing out on the train, two days later he discovered he was in Norfolk, Virginia. Before his adventure began, he was living in Phoenix where his girlfriend ostensibly kicked him out of their apartment after losing his job. He told me he was a telemarketer selling financial services to retirees, and he said that after he was on the job for a while he began to feel that the service was exploitive, so he lost the interest to sell. His numbers declined and he was asked to clean out his desk.
A few days before,he was squatting with a friend in Baltimore. They met at the day labor service, but after a night of hard drinking his friend disappeared. After sleeping on the streets for a few days he hopped a train to Newark and the next morning he lucked out on a ride through the Lincoln Tunnel on a box truck. He explained to me that he thought his condition was one of temporary inconvenience and that if he can work things out with his estranged family he will eventually go back to Phoenix for another job, but for now this was the only way that he could raise enough money to embark on his journey out West. I pulled a few bills out of my wallet and placed them in his hat. I quickly realized that if I dropped money in every hat, I would become broke very quickly, so I stuffed my hand in my pockets all the way to Chinatown where I would get my favorite dumplings.
I realize that many Americans are ideologically opposed to giving money to people on the street, but it is my thought that if I can give someone momentarily relief, then so be it; furthermore, what would Jesus do? I know some that think their donations are ideally served if they donate to nonprofit service agencies that help the homeless.And yet a large portion of their funding goes to large executive salaries. (Goodwill Industries comes to mind)What I also find problematic is that many of these agencies establish their determination of eligibility on what they considerto be the deserving and the non-deserving poor.
A common story that I have heard in New York and other cities with large populations of the displaced, is that the homeless feel invisible, that people are often afraid to acknowledge them. One homeless man expressed to me that he can go for days without having eye contact with a single person. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to understand that this lack of recognition would attack one’s personal psyche. Yet some people are simply afraid to acknowledge the homeless when they are encountered.
For a good part of my holiday respite, I walked with my head down internalizing their pain. I recognized the uncomfortable feelings of anger and depression I was having. Yet I felt there was something else causing me to feel this way.As someone that has been homeless in the past, I was seeing what could very easily be me. There was a time that I felt alienated from the outside world. I lost communication with my family and friends and I was living like a vagabond from one town to the next. I’ve hitched-hiked all over America and have been escorted out of towns by the police for vagrancy. This happened to me because I was one pay check away.
Yet, many people loose their jobs; many people suffer from mental illness; many people have substance abuse problems; but not all end up homeless. Based on my own experience and those I have interviewed over the years; the most underlying cause of homelessness is the lack of social safety nets or family support. When the bottom falls out and there is no one there to catch, it is highly likely that one will end up on the streets.
It really wasn’t my intent to write another essay on homelessness, but as I arrived into Penn Station,I couldn’t believe that I literally had to walk over people sleeping in the middle of the bustle.This seemed like a natural occurrence for the people walking by, but this looked like the theater of the absurd to me. We live in a society where hundreds of thousands people fade into the night in wretched despair, but is this social problem necessary? I think that if this were treated like any other public health issue, homelessness would be eradicated.
Although I have had some brief interludes of sleeping in cars and on friend’s sofas over the past few years, I haven’t been chronically homeless in over twenty-five years. I have known pain, but I have also been very fortunate. The last time that I was looking at sleeping on the streets, I was rescued by a collaborative of human service and health professionals.Yet I realize this is atypical, if I didn’t have people advocating to place me into housing, I could very well be camping out somewhere tonight.
Yet my story is an example of the possibilities when housing and services are in place. To say that I am grateful doesn’t adequately describe how I feel today. I’ve gone from isolation, despair and degradation to a place of contentment. I know that I am among the fortunate.
Back in New Mexico, it is snowing outside and I’m feeling the comfort of my home. Drinking a cup of Earl Grey, I notice icicles hanging from the window sill. Today, I have the option of cooking warm food; I can take a hot bath and I don’t have to plan how I’m going to relieve myself.
Now that we are on the eve of the new year it is apparent that Santa isn’t coming this year. The true meaning of Charlie Brown’s Christmas has also eluded us, there are no miracles on 34th Street and I really haven’t a clue what Jesus is going to do. However, it would be nice to see someone kick over the money changer’s tables. The powers that be won’t likely feel generous any time soon, but I figure that there’s no harm in speaking out in this alternative public sphere. My New Years wish is that homelessness and economic injustice will become a part of everyday discourse and in doing so, a major shift in public policy will take place, because everyone needs a home. We are all deserving because it is a fundamental need and because it is a fundamental need it is a fundamental right. Yes, everyone needs a home; even a smelly, drunken Santa Claus.
© Dennis Dodson, 2016