Jennifer Savage / Wednesday, May 4, 2016 @ 7:50 a.m. / Op-Ed
OP-ED: Who Are the Zombies — The Homeless, or Us?
The wording of the headline – “Evicting the Last Camper and Hauling Out the Last of the Trash” – draws a clear distinction between the people and the things. The comments people make when referring to the homeless, however, not so much. I couldn’t read the line, “removing the last of the campers and cleaning up what remains of the garbage,” without instant awareness that to many, “the campers” and “the garbage” are synonymous. And that they’re both being removed, the people and their things swept into containers, ostensibly out of compassion – I do believe much compassion surrounds these efforts, but still, the pairing of images of people being escorted into boxes while their belongings are piled into different boxes disconcerts.
In Humboldt County’s extended what-do-we-do-with-them debate, all these individuals have existed as a collective Them to most of Us. That they are a problem to somehow solve is undeniable. That many of them are a problem, period, is similarly without dispute. Addiction, mental illness and desperation make for poor community. And so those of us with means enough to sustain ourselves glance away or roll our eyes, avoid certain parts of town, attempt to defend our businesses, our neighborhoods, our cars and homes until the threat becomes too much, the ugliness unbearable, the consequences of unhinged people roaming the street too severe and we demand they be cleaned up.
It’s like Coastal Cleanup Day, but instead of volunteers cheerfully picking up litter, we employ our public servants to collect these unsightly humans. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone rail against the actual reasons our erstwhile neighbors might wind up sleeping in the bushes, needles strewn about, or campaign for a social services safety net with as much enthusiasm as when they propose to simply eliminate those who’ve fallen without one.
I hate trash. I work in ocean advocacy, have for years, and much of my work involves getting garbage out of the ocean, off our beaches. My people are always cleaning up the beaches. But we would prefer to alter the waste stream at its source, shift from disposable goods to sustainable ones. Prevent the toxins from seeping into the ocean.
We don’t have official studies, no baseline monitoring, but observation would suggest hundreds of people camping – the word is a misnomer: “camping” suggests the option of not camping, a situation in which the campers could take a Leave No Trace workshop and all would be well – without restrooms or trash bins results in waste of all sorts making its way into Humboldt Bay (or the various rivers along which the homeless also “camp”). Not an environmental disaster to the level of an oil spill, but alarming nonetheless. And yet not as alarming as the fact that we’ve grown accustomed to those around us going hungry, being cold, helplessly sick and having nowhere to go. I would like to walk their paths backward, find the moments, the circumstances that have dumped them into their current lot and change things at the source.
It’s not just here, of course. I travel up-and-down the state, this gorgeous, rich, amazing state, and everywhere, disheveled and dirty people pile into doorways, lie next to grocery carts under freeway overpasses. I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago, tooling around a corner toward my favorite taco shop, and noticed – couldn’t help but notice – a man squatting among his possessions, such as they were, a collection of things whose value seemed negligible – other than perhaps providing a buffer considering they took up a chunk of sidewalk equal to a bus stop. My heart did the familiar lurch even as my eyes averted, although the shift in my glance was not quick enough to prevent me from seeing that not only was this man squatting, but his pants were down to his knees and he was shitting into his things.
What could I do? I kept walking.
Thank god there are people who don’t. Who would stop, would find a way to help this man and other like him. The saintliness of Betty Chinn is well documented and I know there are others – many others – who give of themselves to ease and assist these people who would otherwise be without hope. The cops, certain city councilmembers, they are on the front lines, trying. What do I do? I just write stuff sometimes. Feel bad while sipping my margarita while waiting for my tacos.
What could we do? Give money? Give clothes? Give food? Vote for Bernie? Demand our leaders provide more funding for all the programs that might make a difference between living with hope and living with not? And what about the scary people and the bad people, the ones who steal and assault, threaten the lives and the livelihoods of us “normal” people just trying to get by?
I have no answers. Or rather, the ones I have are cliché: Donate money, donate time, vote for a better society. Can we quantify the good that might result? Strategize a timeline that shows the magic day when no one in our world is hungry or cold? I don’t know. “It’s so sad,” I say to my friends. They agree.