Only So Much

Today we feature a post by Peace Tree Contributing author, Lori Hahn.

Only So Much
By Lori Hahn

Every day, I go to work past the Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army—where the homeless can get a meal and maybe even find a job. It’s in a rough warehouse area. Not inviting at all to the city’s residents as a whole. Men in wheelchairs, women on bikes, people walking with their shopping carts or bags full of their life’s belongings form an endless stream of people running from the river banks from one direction to the bushes and alleys downtown from the other, all converging at this point because breakfast is about to be served. There is no progression through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here—it’s pure survival, baby.

I take frequent trips around the block at the office, mostly to clear my head, but sometimes just to see what’s going on outside the confines of the space I share with smart, sane, college-educated folks that may worry about where they might find a good happy hour after work but haven’t known hungry night or the felt the indifference of others. I’ve come to recognize many of the folks on the street and have spoken to more than a few…mostly to tell them I have neither change nor a smoke for them. Some hope for the largesse of the capitol employee-set to put a couple bucks in their pocket, one quarter at a time. Some rage in scary ways if you dare look their way—and have self-medicated that day with drugs or alcohol. Most don’t take their legal medication, if they can get medication at all. But, they’ve created their own community; one in which they are understood and accepted, and where they form friendships based on security and a strength-in-numbers outlook. Many of them will spend tonight in jail or will be rousted from their box by the riverbank, where they share camp with other lost souls.

I just keep thinking of the guy who was probably 40, now haggard and hunched over in his wrinkled, dirty fatigue jacket as he stood outside of the store I popped into. I’d seen him before, at the same corner, kickboxing an imaginary opponent. I told him I had no change as I went in but said to him on the way out, “I had no change, but now I do, here.” As he looked into his palm at the 78 cents, he said, “Thanks, have a wonderful day, young lady.” I said, “You, too.” He broke out into a great snaggle-toothed smile, and said, “Thanks, that made my day more than this money.”

These days, I have more questions than answers regarding what I believe are the pressing social issues of my community. Where do we begin to help? Our lack of humanity as a species of thinking humans makes me feel a little helpless sometimes. I could carry on about how Reagan’s policies of the 80s shut off many avenues for long-term assistance for the mentally ill and how general hospitals, nursing homes, and jails and prisons have become the new, but ill-equipped solution, but it really doesn’t matter anymore. We need to rethink this issue now and provide tangible solutions that allow them their personal dignity while providing safety for themselves and for the greater community. Please visit the National Resource Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness to learn more.

Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

~ Emma Lazarus


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