If we are lucky enough to have good health, a decent home and full bellies, we are quick to ascribe it all to our own efforts and slow to credit the largess of others or to the situational nature of our placement in the world. We love stories of hard work and sacrifice yielding great rewards and pretend to disdain inherited wealth and titles. We imagine, without evidence, that the world operates as a gigantic meritocracy, dolling out the proper amount of wealth and security to each according to their ability to earn it.
Our view of those who lead less wonderful lives is almost always tainted by a childish criticism of the person’s character. I say childish because I remember being child and learning about slavery in the United States. My first thought was, “I would never let anyone enslave me.”
As a child I was white and male and comfortably middle class. It was easy as a kid reading Marvel Comics and watching Star Trek reruns to believe that corrupt systems can be overthrown and bad people defeated. As a child, the world is black and white, and a child’s imagination, as wonderful and creative as it might be, lacks the ability to understand the soul crushing effects of psychological, emotional, sexual and physical torture that perpetuates an engine like slavery.
(I am reading an excellent book on this subject, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E Baptist that brings to light the cruelty of slavery through the lens of “unfettered” capitalism.)
These are the thoughts I had when thinking about my first night volunteering for Registry Week, the first step in the Zero:16 campaign to end veteran and chronic homelessness in Rhode Island by 2016. Last night I sat across a table at Crossroads, a homeless shelter in Providence, and interviewed around a half dozen people who are currently homeless.
The questions I asked were extremely personal at times, delving into physical and mental health, interactions with law enforcement and financial issues. Everyone had the right, even after consenting to the interview, to not answer any of the questions, but everyone answered every question. Some of the stories I heard were heartbreaking. The people I interviewed are not bad or possessed of some life defining moral failing. They are simply the winners of a lottery none of us wants to enter.
Certainly some of the people I talked to have issues with alcohol or the law, and some of the people I talked to don’t manage their finances properly or plan for the future, but these are not crimes. We all have friends and family with addiction issues and not all of us are smart with our money, but only some of us are homeless.
Homelessness is the end result of a number of unfortunate life circumstances. Most of us deal with these issues one at a time, some of us deal with two or three at a time. Most of us have family and fiends we can count on when things go wrong. It's not our wonderful natures that immunize us from the terrors of the world, it's the luck of the draw.
But the childish among us want to pretend that rewards and punishments are doled out fairly. Some of us made the right choices, went to the right schools, angled for the right job, avoided all the pitfalls and scored big. But deep down, we all know differently. That's why some cities and towns (including, apparently, downtown Providence in Kennedy Plaza) outlaw feeding the homeless. Some people don't want to see the victims of the game they are winning. It's out of sight, out of mind, a willing dismissal of the object permanence we learned at nine months old or a cultivated cognitive dissonance.
Those of us who are not homeless might work hard and do all the right things, but when it comes time to account for our fortune the number one determinant is luck.
We are lucky.