Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Solidarity with the poor
There are so many assumptions and theories about poverty; it’s a personal issue, the government doesn’t do enough, society has all these ideals and pressures that hold the individual back, but there is one major component that is constantly lost in the shuffle, we’re talking about people, not an idea. Yes, poverty is a consequence of certain circumstances and it is also a cause of others, but it deals with people, other human beings. When we talk about poverty or the poor, we have to remind ourselves that we are dealing with others just like us. In fact, due to unforeseeable circumstances, there is no guarantee that we won’t ever be in that situation, it could be us, hopefully not but still important to recognize.
During these eight weeks, and always actually, but especially now, I am asked to stand in solidarity with the poor. It’s a little different here because a lot of the people I am working with are living in low income housing but with food and an apartment with electricity and water and such. Some, a very low majority are homeless and Daybreak is working to get them housed because as I have talked about earlier, it is the first and most vital step to getting them stable. I am living with my clients. I live in the same apartment complex with at least 6 other adults that all have behavioral disabilities. My neighbors are the people I encounter through Daybreak’s case management. So yes, I am living in solidarity with them and in the meantime, I am advocating for them. If something is broken in the building, I have the most direct contact with Valley Residential Service to get it fixed, so I do. But, what I have learned the most is not about what I can do for them or what it’s like to live in community living with the clients, it is the fact that they are just another group of people to live with. I’ve done the college dorm thing for 3 years now and it’s just like having loud neighbors in the dorms or people who just wave and say hello as you head into the building. They are people who have led a life slightly different than me.
Regardless of their living situation, the clients that Daybreak works with and all the low income and mentally disabled people experience the same fears and anxieties we all have. As David Shipler said in Ending Poverty in America, the biggest emotion discussed was fear.
“They were afraid to apply [for jobs]. They were afraid of being asked about their police records. They were afraid of being rejected. And a couple even said that they were afraid of being accepted into jobs they did not think they could do.” (18).
This is one of the most basic human emotions. We all have fears, especially the fear of failure. The poor, disabled, and marginalized feel it exponentially-they have disability and doctor records, prison records, and a long list of past failures holding them back. It is a necessity to look beyond the paperwork at the person you’re helping.
I shadowed a case manager today, Nate, and we were discussing his clients, all of whom seem to struggling right now. He told me of one of his clients who handed him their gun and asked him to hold on to it as they struggled to suppress suicidal thoughts. My first reaction? “Who let them have a gun?!” I was aghast that a mentally ill person who has been suicidal was allowed a weapon. Nate’s response was simple yet effective, “Who’s right is it to tell them what to do?” These people may be mentally ill but they are still adult individuals with the right to make their own decisions. Yes, some will argue that they are not capable of making their own decisions but Nate’s question still stands, who’s right is it to determine their capabilities? Obviously, a case manager is meant to encourage them towards treatment and help but Daybreak’s whole philosophy is based on the client’s ability to remain independent and make their own decisions-empowerment of the individual. They decide what direction their life will take, and with a little help from case managers and some resources, they are able to do effectively. Approaching the poor and marginalized as human beings with the same rights as the rest of us, recognizing and respecting their humanity and dignity, and understanding and attempting to relate to them allows us to stand in solidarity.
I’m an idealist, but my idealism was tested today when Nate and I went to check on a few of his clients. The first few were definitely stressful-anxious, defiant, paranoid, and depressed-but the last one broke my heart. I didn’t get the chance to meet her though, she wasn’t home. We drove out past the hiking trailheads to a turn off that leads to the river and pulled up next to an old, beat-up, blue truck. This was her home. I was shocked. I have met people that are having a rough time, even others who don’t have a solid home but are couch surfing for a bit, but she was alone with literally nowhere to go. What I struggle with the most out of this is that people call me crazy-“how can you change a whole system?” “It’s their own fault they’re in this situation.” “Why don’t you treat the causes and help a group of people instead of just this one?” These are all legitimate concerns, questions, and observations. David Shipler highlights a lot of these same points. But he shows how they are all interrelated. It is both the individual and the institution. Not everyone is given the same opportunities to buy into the “American Dream”, not everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves; this is where the institution fails. The individuals usually do something that aggravates the situation-drugs, alcohol, crime, etc. By looking at the whole picture, one can see how poverty is both a cause and an effect and it can be treated as such. “You cannot solve a problem without defining it, and if you don’t allow yourself a complete definition, you will never approach a thorough solution. Connect the dots” (15). It’s a complex web of issues that overlap and are interconnected. All sides must be addressed and the blame cannot be laid on one party.
Bill and I talked about this exact issue later in the day. I hadn’t talked about what I had seen because I am still processing, but he explained his love for meetings along these same lines. He wants to change the system so he’s able to help more than one individual at a time so he is the director and helps lobby for new grants, programs, and organizations that will help the population. He also recognizes the importance of treating current needs, that’s why he does case management. There is a compromise between the individual and institutional approach-work for both. Work to change the system while meeting the needs of the individual. Help change how society and government work with these people and help the people help themselves. Bill constantly reminds me of the hope and idealism that sometimes wavers as I look at the work to be done, but he reassures me that it can be done with a lot of passion. It’s a recognition that this is a need that has to be met but it’s beyond just personal gain or popularity; it is the ability to be a part of something bigger than oneself and working to cause change for individuals and whole systems. Standing in solidarity with the poor means recognizing the plight of the poor and working with them (not for them) to cause change. You become their advocate, allowing them the individuality and responsibility of making their own decisions, but acting as a resource for them and others who suffer by changing the flaws in the system.