Tuesday, September 17, 2013

There's No Home Like Place


I re-read Angela's Ashes this summer. This is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It is a powerful but deeply depressing book that many sensible people don't get through the first time. b. I don't read all that much, so I almost never re-read anything--I may be the only serious Harry Potter fan who has only read the books once.

I came to re-read it because it was one of the options for my daughter's honors English class. She selected a different deeply depressing book from among her options--apparently the theme for 11th grade English is "you don't have things so bad, really." Angela's Ashes was therefore sitting around and sometimes you read a book because it is nearby. 

In related (trust me, it's related) news, a while ago my wife accidentally volunteered to be the coordinator for the HOPES emergency homeless shelter. Not the coordinator for the whole program of course, which houses people in churches for the entire winter, but for the two weeks last February during which our church took its turn. If you've never accidentally volunteered for anything, you may be wondering how this is possible. Generally speaking, it comes of signing up to be on a committee or board, stumbling onto a sub-committee, and then getting caught daydreaming while the assignments are being handed out. In order to make it seem that you have been paying attention, you heartily agree to the next thing suggested, which is inevitably the idea of you becoming the head/executive liaison/chief content officer of the one and only project this committee will take on for the year. Perhaps you've done this as well, and thought it was recognition for your tenacity and vast leadership skills. Oh, yeah, it could  be that too, I guess.

Since I happen to be sleeping with the coordinator, it was rather necessary for me to take on a shift at the shelter. This despite having a more-than-full-time job, a graduate school class, and a fairly small baby. This sounds like a complaint, but it's not. Everyone who took a shift had something in his/her life that makes sleeping at a homeless shelter difficult, and many of our parishioners took four shifts or more.

I started a post last winter about the homeless shelter, but never finished it (it is, after all, The Slacker's Guide to School--you should be shocked that anything ever makes it up here). Angela's Ashes renewed my thinking about wealth and poverty, so here are a number of issues as seen from both perspectives:

What does it mean to be homeless? -
  • Angela's Ashes - The McCourts lived in a variety of bad housing situations--each smaller and/or more squalid than the previous. They dealt with fleas, flooding, rats, and sanitary sewer circumstances devoid of both sanitation and sewage treatment. They stayed with close relatives for a few nights and a more distant relative for a longer stretch. They always had a roof over their heads, but it was not always certain that this was worth what it cost them--especially, it turns out, the "free" option. One can't read these accounts and not see that some sorts of regulations (e.g. one privy per household, rather than having the entire lane carrying their buckets to just the one) could have made a big difference.
  • HOPES - One of the reasons that we have so much trouble counting the homeless is that circumstances can change very quickly for each individual. We all think we would recognize a homeless person if we encountered one--mostly by the large cardboard box and the little sign asking for help, but it doesn't look this way for the most part around here. In our rural/suburban county there is such a thing as "home-insecure." A person who stays a couple of days at a time on friends' couches is sorta homeless. A woman and her children who stay with her boyfriend, at least during the times when he isn't drinking so much that he becomes violent,  is sorta homeless. A person who is living in an apartment from which he has already been evicted, or a house that's already in foreclosure, is sorta homeless.
What does it mean to be poor? -
  • Angela's Ashes - The family passed through a series of increasingly desperate means of financial support. From low wage jobs, through the dole (Unemployment), to public assistance (Welfare), to the St. Vincent DuPaul Society (yeah, we have that here too), to begging at the priest's door for table scraps, and so on. Each level brought with it its own level of shame, as well as a series of hoops to jump through. At each level there was some relief from the moment's desperate circumstances and a sense of relief that at least they hadn't reached the next level. This was inevitably followed by reaching the next level. 
  • HOPES - Some of the guests have jobs. Some have cars to get to those jobs. Some have iPads, most have mobile phones. These are not people who have reached rock bottom, but what they all have in common is that they will go through the daily hassles placed before them to get a voucher that permits them to sleep on the floor in a church social hall. For everyone there, a decision has been made that that this is preferable to any alternatives they have. Before anyone would begrudge them this, he/she should consider going through the same process for the same reward. That said, setting policies for this program is a delicate balance of making sure that no one gives up and just sleeps on the streets, nor does anyone find it so simple and comfortable that they don't do anything to try to make more lasting improvements in their circumstances. This sometimes boils down to surreal conversations about whether we should provide pillows and whether the graham crackers can be name brand or not.
What is the effect of vices?-
  • Angela's Ashes - Okay, so vices aren't such a good thing for any of us--for a definitive, scholarly, and very funny treatment of vice in general, I recommend The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them). For people close to the edge, though, they can be dangerous in an entirely different way. Malachy McCourt (the pater familias in Angela's Ashes) had a drinking problem. Worse, he had a very specific kind of drinking problem that not only led him to drink to excess, but demanded that he show up at the pub with the entire week's wages (or dole money, or assistance, or...) and buy drinks for everyone until all the money was spent. Also, even though there wasn't always enough money for bread, and almost never enough for meat and eggs, Frank noticed that his parents always managed to have cigarettes.
  • HOPES - There are very strict rules about paraphernalia for vices--prescription and over-the-counter drugs, alcohol, tobacco, firearms (all possible weapons, really)--and a check-in procedure to enforce the rules. This may be in part because it is a council of churches that runs the program or it may be to try to keep destructive behavior that often accompanies these behaviors out of the shelter. It also may be, in part, because it's helpful toward getting people to volunteer their time to help others who are not misbehaving themselves. 
What about depression? - 
  • Angela's Ashes - It's never called "depression," but it's clear that Angela suffered from it. Actually, I guess it's clear. Her life events are so terrible that anyone would show emotional scarring. However, I guess the loose definition I'm using is that her reaction to her very real grief and impossible circumstances caused further degradation of her family's circumstances. Long (and gut-wrenching) story short, she spends lots of days in bed staring at the wall,when her children desperately need her.
  • HOPES - I have nothing at all here. All of the guests that I dealt with were in remarkably good spirits. They joked with each other, and with us, and displayed enormous patience in dealing with the fact that they knew the system much better than the volunteers. Wherever and whenever they deal with their own difficulties, it isn't in the shelter. Maybe that's just one more hardship of living in the shelter.
What about kids? -
  • Angela's Ashes - At one point in the book, Angela sends her husband to work in England. Since there is a war on, England has something like negative unemployment at the time, however that's not the only reason. Angela does this as the form of birth control available to her. It was Frank's conception that brought this couple together, it was the life (and, tragically, death in some cases) of the children that dictated many of their choices, and it was the decision to not conceive any more that finally effectively ended the marriage.
  • HOPES - There are provisions at HOPES for moms with kids, but no provision for dads with kids. There are programs like WIC and CHIP that are meant to help mothers, children, and mothers with children. Even so, being homeless with children must be 6.02214129(27)×1023 times harder than being homeless on your own. I worked out this calculation based on how much harder it is to live in a home with children as compared with without, and plugged in the new variables. 
What about neatness? -
  • Angela's Ashes - The McCourts were, as portrayed via the reactions of visitors to their home, were very poor housekeepers. Still, Angela does make an effort to keep her family decently attired--even when that meant darkening their feet to hide the holes in the socks. At Frank's school, there were kids with shoes and kids without shoes. At one point, Frank's dad tacked on new soles made from bike tires to keep his sons in the "with shoes" category. The problem with this was that the kids didn't know which category to put them in--with shoes or without, and so they got picked on by both camps. Frank's aunt--from whom he'd gotten no love and only very grudging civility previously--took out a loan at one point to buy Frank work clothes. Working your way into the next level often requires having the means to look like you're already at the next level.
  • HOPES - If you're picturing hobos, you're wrong. There is certainly some variation in personal hygiene, as there would be among most gatherings of guys, but the guests are not universally shabby. One of the younger guys had perfectly clean clothes and immaculate sneakers, which he cleaned the night I was there, and probably every night. Another guest had a precise and quasi-ritualistic way of setting up his sleeping area. Others looked a bit more like Willy Nelson or Michael Moore, but keep in mind, those guys are millionaires. The room where they slept did take on a certain funk--sort of a potpourri of men, the disinfectant/deodorant spray used on the sleeping mats, and residual tobacco smoke. Still, the total effect was way-short of a high school locker-room during football season--or worse, a drum and bugle corps uniform in August. It made me think of the degree of organization required to manage this lifestyle--a bin at HOPES, perhaps a locker at the Resource Center, pockets, a backpack for the times in between. If you think about how much thought goes into keeping everything straight during a day at Hersheypark, imagine what it's like to live like this all the time.
What about hunger? -
  • Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt rhapsodizes for half-a-page on what he would do if they ever ended up flush enough that he'd be given his own egg for breakfast. Mostly it seems he and his family existed on fried bread, tea with sugar, and the occasional treat of toffee from the candy store or a lemonade at the pub.
  • HOPES - Lots of the guests came in with grocery bags of snacks. "Grocery" is probably the wrong word, since it's really convenience stores we're talking about. Everything in these bags was white, fluffy, salty, sweet, and delicious. Recently it was calculated that the McDonald's double cheeseburger is the most bountiful food in human history. Fast food and junk food may be lacking in nutrients and contribute to heart disease and so on, but it represents the best values in terms of calories per dollar available. These folks probably burn many of those calories jumping through the hoops put forth by the various aid agencies. In this country, it's the rich people who eat the leafy greens, the whole grains, and the un-processed vegetables. If you can't cook anything, you need to eat HoHos. For the Slacker's Guide to Food, see also: here.
What about healthcare? -
  • Angela's Ashes - McCourt's book demonstrates that simply getting older was quite an accomplishment for people in his life circumstance. Three of his siblings didn't survive until elementary school, and Frank himself faces a life-threatening case of typhoid. Some of this can probably be ascribed to climate (which Frank's father is quick to blame), some to sanitation (see the first item, above) and some to diet--even today in Ireland, a grilled tomato at breakfast and some chips with the fish can represent a full day's vegetable offerings. Those fortunate enough to live into old age occasionally may have wished they hadn't. Hard work (e.g. delivering coal, working in mines, etc.) has in fact killed a great many people--despite what you may have been told. Frank watched hard working men all around him work until their bodies simply failed them.
  • HOPES - We do a better job of providing healthcare to the very old and the very poor than we do the rest of society. This means that the population at the shelter did have some access to healthcare--even if much of it is provided in emergency rooms. This is a good thing, considering the percentage of them suffering from diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and so on. It's difficult to manage chronic illness when you're homeless, but I guess it's difficult to do quite a lot of things.
Part of the delay in finishing this post has been the effort involved in drawing it to some kind of conclusion. What exactly is a Slacker to do in the face of these insights? Try hard in school?(!) See also: here.

My working definition of a Slacker is someone who has more to work with than he/she typically applies. One of the reasons that we live this way is that we like to keep something in reserve for when things really get serious. We are fairly certain that we won't end up in the circumstances of the McCourts or the HOPES guests, because just before that moment we'll really put on the steam. For a while in high school I was fairly lukewarm on the idea of college, and pondered the economics of heading straight to work from high school. What I didn't realize was that for every tech genius who skipped college (or dropped out) and quickly became a billionaire, there are thousands who are similarly intelligent, but do not find their niche in the vast marketplace of smart under-performers. As alarming a prospect as it may be to put effort into high school, how much more so is the now infamous McDonald's budget? It turns out that trying to get by on the kind of job (or even two of those jobs) available to those without a high school--even college, these days--education is much harder than charming a nice girl into letting you copy her homework.