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.