Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thawed out

      Over the weekend, my RCLI class had our monthly session and this month's topic was Land Use and Housing. On Saturday we visited a trailer park on the southside of town. The residents of this community really impressed me. I intentionally called what they had a community because to me, that's what it modeled. When we first arrived, I was reminded of the campground my family used to vacation at in Maryland. Initially, I had good feelings about the place. I saw kids racing their bikes around and a few men walking their dogs around while smoking cigarettes. We broke up into groups and took lunch to some of the residents of the trailer park. The first trailer we got to was broken up into three smaller "cabannas" which probably were the size of my kitchen at best-actually probably smaller. Inside the first one we arrived at, a neighborhood friend was helping "Sugy"(nickname for Sugar) who was upwards of 60 years old, fix her dvd player. Sugy was visiting with another friend who's daughter she had used to babysit. After a couple of minutes, we spotted an older man strolling through the trailer park towards us with a  beer can in hand and a smile on his face. He was the dad of the lady visiting Sugy. Within fifteen minutes of us arriving, there were four neighbors all visiting for one reason or another in this mini trailer that Sugy called home. Was it just me, or did this really fit the model of community we are all striving for in our comfortable middle class neighborhoods? I found a sense of comfort in this environment. Maybe I needed to be more sensitive to the physical environment these people are exposed to on a daily basis. Or maybe I need to be more understanding of the barriers these people face just trying to get to the grocery store which is close to a mile's walk as the bus route cut them off a few years back. Maybe I need to advocate for more affordable and better quality housing for these folks as they are paying upwards of $150 per week for these sub standard trailers. Maybe it was just me being selfish and being envious of the community they seemed to have. Obviously, I only got a glimpse into their lives and perhaps we caught them on a sunny day when they felt a rare feeling of friendliness and kindness towards their neighbor. This could be the case, but I tend to think we witnessed the norm rather than the exception. From our view, these people have so little. They are ripped off and taken advantage of. But they have something we don't. They rely on one another for the everyday things that we could pay someone to do, or have the access to that they no longer do. Something as simple as getting groceries or fixing a DVD player, they call on one another to lend a hand when one is in need.
On Sunday night, I had the opportunity to watch "Concrete Mattress", a documentary on homelessness in Atlanta, GA. The "event" was put on by City Church which meets on Franklin St. close to the Fan.
Even though I work for a homeless agency in the community, I often forget where these folks have come from, the stories they have and the struggles they continue to face. The documentary painted a really good picture of the harsh realities of being homeless and the many obstacles these people face. This may be a bold statement, but the more I think about homelessness, the more I realize that homelessness is seeming more and more to be a result the shortcomings of our society, churches, and policy makers. When I hear about "plans to end homelessness" they usually talk about some sort of new subsidized housing project, more affordable housing, or more shelters and transitional housing opportunities. In my opinion, these are efforts to "clean up" homelessness, not to end it. We may be able to get the current homeless population off the streets, but what are we doing for the next generation? What are we doing to reduce barriers, to improve access to services, and to learn from the stories of our current homeless generation? It will not be a senator or a pastor or a citizen that will end homelessness. It will be an entire community that is not afraid to engage in conversations with the homeless, to learn their stories, to visit the bridges they've slept under, to believe that they have a vital role in the betterment of our society.

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