Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Nowhere to Go

A few weeks ago I got an email from a neighborhood listserv I belong to, informing subscribers that a local non-profit has plans of constructing 75 units of permanent housing for currently homeless people right across the street from our house. 47 steps, to be exact. (According to my very logical and exacting husband, who counted earlier today.) Downtown Emergency Service Center, or DESC, is an award winning provider of services to homeless people that follows the "housing first" philosophy, which basically means getting people into homes first and then helping them get their lives together, instead of expecting folks to somehow get their lives together in order to prove themselves worthy of a home.

My first reaction, my initial emotional reaction, was a feeling of pride, one of feeling honored to be chosen to host these people, people without a place, people who need to be welcomed into a community. I know this sounds odd, perhaps even unbelievable, that this would be my feeling. Growing up, both my parents instilled in me a deep sense of caring for others, by the example they set in their lives both at work and with friends. My father would drop everything to help a friend; if someone needed an emergency plumber, mechanic, or engineer, my father was one of several men in our neighborhood who would come over and help. He also cooked spaghetti for many a neighborhood fundraising dinner, and when Brent and I along with some friends started a non-profit arts center, both my parents came out from the Midwest to help clean the space for the grand opening.

After leaving teaching, my mother started her career as a real estate agent selling vacant homes to low income people and veterans. Later, after graduating from law school and joining the Minnesota bar, she worked as an advocate with the Children's Defense Fund, lobbying and doing research. After that she worked for the state and in the private sector in structuring child support systems, and then a few years ago was appointed by the Governor of Minnesota to lead the state's initiative to end homelessness. Currently she's doing the same thing she was doing for the state only for a private non-profit called Heading Home Minnesota.

That's not the full story, though. They weren't the only bleeding hearts in the neighborhood. One of our neighbors and close family friends, in fact, once took in a homeless family and allowed them to live in his garage (until the man of the homeless family started telling him what to do, and then, as neighborhood legend has it, the man of the family that took them in said "This is MY castle, and I'M king!" And kicked them out.) We lived in an "inter-racial" (read poor and primarily African-American) neighborhood, minority white home owners with many other Kumbaya white folks on our block and surrounding blocks.

My parents and their friends were on a mission, and though I had some hard times as the "white girl" in my neighborhood, I've come not only to respect that mission but somewhat to share it as well. Now, my family lives in a similar neighborhood in Seattle, though it is more multi-ethnic than where I grew up and we live right on the busy, disreputable street rather than a couple blocks off of it as I did growing up. We moved here because we found a house we liked with affordable rent, and though we've wanted to live other places and sometimes still do, we've grown to love the neighborhood and the people in it, warts and all.

The project that is (probably) going in across the street will be serving mentally ill and/or drug addicted folks who are coming in off the streets. These are the people that most of us pass by in disgust, they are the "untouchables", the repellent pee smelling people who mutter to themselves, or perhaps accost us as we walk past with vile, hate filled words. I won't say "we" - I - have tried not to see these people. I am repulsed, frightened, sometimes even rageful. But, when I'm busing around town with my daughters, we come across many of these forgotten souls. And what I've noticed is, my daughters are not automatically repelled. They see these people as just other people, and engage with them the same way they would with anyone. That recognition brought me to a decision. I would teach my children to see everyone as a person, an individual deserving of respect, dignity, and compassion. But that doesn't mean just being nice all the time to everyone no matter what. Children see clearly, and also have no filters. When my older daughter doesn't like someone she makes it very well known, and I let her take the space she needs if she doesn't want to interact with someone. But she's not picking up on whether a person smells like pee, or has a drug problem, or looks disheveled - she picks up on the energy of the person.

Also, as a Zen Buddhist, I live my life continually reflecting my feelings and thoughts back onto myself. Compassion and non-judgement are my primary spiritual tasks, and I am continually looking for opportunities to exercise and practice these skills. Being presented with 75 people who might disgust or repel me is a great spiritual opportunity.

DESC Website
Last night there was a meeting at the library down the street in which the Executive Director of DESC presented the project. I wasn't there but read this article about the meeting, and Brent did stop by but the space was completely packed and he couldn't hear the proceedings so he left. But apparently it became, in parts, a shouting match between neighbors for and against the project. All day I've been feeling down about this acrimony, even though it isn't a surprise. Perhaps I'm naive, or full of myself, or both, but all the hoopla about property values, possible sexual predators, "bad neighbors", and this neighborhood "not being in a place" to be able to support these people just seems really beside the point to me. To me it is about people. Not an abstract concept of people, but actual people. People who need somewhere to go. But they don't only need a place to live. They need a place in someone's heart. They need to be seen. Perhaps my neighborhood will become that place, and perhaps I and my neighbors can be those people. I hope.

No comments: