I imagine what irks people most about homeless populations, beyond safety considerations, is the idea that they aren't pulling their weight.
Yes, it's annoying when people give the appearance of not trying their best. We seem to appreciate when folks at least give the appearance of pulling their weight, even if they're not actually doing so. There is a certain type of entitlement which runs contrary to the notion of best efforts, of giving back to society, and I think this is what fundamentally bothers people in discussions within this arena.
Sometimes that suspicion is accurate. We– imagining ourselves as homeless for a moment– we can get pushed to a point where we no longer care to participate in a social contract we perceive has wronged us, and ride whatever fragment of entitlement our bruised egos can salvage.
There is one societal group this behavior severely disadvantages:
Other homeless people.
Those who are actually trying. During the most difficult time in their lives, these folks, on top of their troubles, have to deal with overcoming the perception of– of all things!– laziness. Can you believe it? The passion with which I have heard certain homeless speak on this issue is staggering. I remember Leroy, not realizing he was raising his voice, as he expounded on the sluggish complacency he found in some of his shelter-mates.
Pretty often, however, folks really are putting in the effort, but we just can't tell, masked as those efforts are by mental health or circumstances too complex for us to grasp. For our own psychological well-being, our view of humanity is more inclusive of positive truths if we just give people the benefit of the doubt. To explain:
I'm talking to operator Gary at the end of the line. He and I may vote for different presidents (although probably not in this crazy election!), but that doesn't mean we don't have a lot to share and learn from each other. Gary once gave me the best relationship advice I've gotten in ten years. I'd tell you what it is, except we're not on The View... tonight he's telling me about a recent incident on his bus.
He's approaching Rainier and Othello southbound. The zone was empty, but three young guys are running very quickly toward the bus. The lead guy and the oldest, a teenager, is extremely fast, though he's carrying a basketball and some other items. Quite a ways behind him is the second guy, younger, and even further behind that individual is the third guy, who isn't running very quickly at all.
Gary shared with me that he was thinking, okay: this is one of those things where three friends are running for the bus, and the first one actually makes an effort and holds the bus while the other two slowly swagger on, doing the pimp roll, like they own the place.
As somebody needed to get off at Othello anyways, Gary pulled over. The first kid raced up to the bus. The other two were still back there somewhere, catching up. Gary, thinking on what he'd been thinking about, decided to say something. He said to Kid A, "How come you're so much faster than your friends?"
He intended the comment as an implicit appreciation of Kid A, who'd put in the effort. Bus drivers appreciate a little hustle. Kid A caught his breath and said, "well, one of them is a lot younger, so he's not as fast. And then the other guy, well, the other guy has asthma."
There you go. They really were trying their best. Gary felt completely chagrined. You just never know.
Yes, there are those don't try. As someone with significant experience with the homeless in this job and elsewhere, I can say that group is small in number; things are generally more complicated. But even so, are they less deserving of the right to be human? A thought worth considering:
When we start blaming the oppressed, and complaining about how "they smell funny," or "they're getting free stuff," what does that say about us? About our sense of entitlement over others?
We don't get to choose who we serve. Gary came up to me an hour or so after he told me the above story, now that we'd arrived at the opposite terminal. He had one more thing to add. That's what he said. "We don't get to choose we serve."
"Oh, that's brilliant," I replied. It encapsulated something I really like about this job. "Hang on, I need to write that down," I said, tearing off a transfer to do so.
What dignity is there if we only give to those we like or who share our views and football teams and life philosophies or who we think are pretty? To give great customer service only to people we like is absolutely nothing to be proud of, and no type of meaningful skill. It is the egalitarian nature of giving, of serving all– this is the true challenge. To recognize the humanness of every person and deal with that, and that alone: that is the discipline. As Clint Eastwood once said:
"Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
This is a follow-up post; here's Pulling Our Weight, Part I. Also a big thank you to Mr. Lukas (yes you!), friend and former Seattle resident with whom I had many excellent conversations, and provided the above Hester quote late one evening on the route.
Eleanor Moseley Pollnow
6/14/2016 02:16:53 pm
Beautifully stated, Nathan.
6/14/2016 03:29:58 pm
Thank you, Eleanor! That's an honor to hear from you!
6/14/2016 06:33:01 pm
Wow Nathan! Way to shine a light on the darkness in me...I sincerely thank you!
6/16/2016 12:48:19 pm
Thank you Ethel- keep smiling that smile of yours! It helps more folks than we can imagine!
6/14/2016 11:46:06 pm
Nathan! Thanks so much for including "my" quote on your blog. I am touched! I recommended the blog to a couple of people in Denver today, so your readership keeps expanding hopefully. Keep up the excellent work on and off the line!
6/16/2016 12:49:16 pm
My pleasure, Lukas! And a big thank you for expanding the readership in Denver, a city I've always liked! Hope you're enjoying the best that the lower 48 has to offer!
6/15/2016 12:13:53 am
Nathan, you are spot on that people experiment homelessness are no more, or less lazy than any other cross section of the population. I'd encourage you to consider how you use the word homeless in future writing. Using, "the homeless", and "certain homeless" is rather dehumanizing. Could you imagine using, "the gays" or "certain gays". Obviously being gay, and being homeless are different, but both are circumstances beyond and individuals choice. It's also important to note that for most people who are homeless in Seattle there is very little incentive to participate in work, or other societal markers of productivity. If you are homeless in Seattle it's very unlikely that obtaining full time minimum wage employment will provide you with enough income to afford housing. Assuming you have the skills, and background to even get work. Thanks for your insight, and challenging the commonly help view that peoples' homelessness is caused by "poor choices", and "laziness". It is so far from reality, and truly hurts, and stigmatizes people without a place to live. As if living in a shelter or outside isn't bad enough. Let's just top it off with a big ol stinking pile of stigma.
6/16/2016 01:05:23 pm
Charles, Great summation of laziness existing in all class groups. Thank you for reading!
6/15/2016 10:17:55 am
Nathan, your beautifully crafted.words continue to resonate at the core. I keep reading this particular post. I am thinking about the complexity of people's circumstances...and the old iceberg.
6/16/2016 01:06:36 pm
Mia, thank you ever so much, as always. I'm so glad the piece resonates- it's one I've been working on and pondering for a long time now. Gary told me that story above months ago! Great to finally be able to share.
6/18/2016 09:11:46 am
Nathan, chiming in late to thank you for this whole lovely piece, and especially for including "or who we think are pretty." Appearance has been on my mind a lot as I notice who are the bus drivers or passengers I choose to smile at, the children I notice in the grocery store, and the Real Change vendors I'm drawn to. I do usually respond to anyone who greets me first (and smiles tend to make everyone more appealing), but I'm appalled by my tendency to avoid or overlook those who are not esthetically pleasing to my eye. Add dirty or smelly on top of not pretty and it can be stupidly hard to remember that this person is just as much a person as their prettier, cleaner neighbor.
6/18/2016 01:47:06 pm
Im very much enjoying your Website, Tommy Transit recommended I check it out, he was right, this is great stuff.
3/26/2020 12:48:11 pm
Thanks for reading, Eric! Your kind comments are much appreciated!!
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