Not deferential enough: Ye who now will bless the poor ...

Posted Wednesday, November 30, 2011 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Ye who now will bless the poor ...

by Gina Hamilton

I am a member of a local freecycle network. Freecycle began its life by providing a clearinghouse where people who had a guitar to get rid of, or needed a garden rake, could meet and exchange the goods for no cost. I got rid of tons of stuff from old magazines to broken lawnmowers by freecycling it over the years, and got other stuff I needed, and it was great. 

But in the last year, I'd say, things have become grim.

Just in the last two weeks, there were no fewer than three appeals for items for families who were homeless or very close to being homeless. The stuff they were looking for was basic, basic, basic: clothing for small children and pregnant mothers-to-be, food or formula, diapers and diaper coupons, items for elderly folks, small toys for children who would otherwise have no Christmas gifts at all.

These folks are at the leading edge of what is a terrifying new reality.

When the first appeal showed up, I knew I didn't have anything that would work for the homeless child. All the clothes I still had on hand were for older kids, and most of those were in rough shape. But I stopped at a Salvation Army Thrift Store and bought about $15 worth of clothes and a winter coat a size too big for the child (they didn't have one in her size) and emailed the woman who had made the appeal. She wasn't the homeless person; the homeless child and her father were staying with the woman and her husband because the child's mother had deserted them and taken everything they owned. I had given the lady my old grill the summer before, and so we were freecycle buddies, of a sort. I gave her my card and told her that if I could help in any other way, to contact me. 

And then I saw the appeal from "Paul" and "Elaine." They'd lost everything, and were living in a friend's basement. They'd literally gone from being comfortably middle class to among the poorest of the poor in less than six months. They, too, needed clothes for their kids, especially outerwear, and Elaine, who was pregnant, needed clothes for herself. They were desperately trying to hold on to their vehicles and feed their kids while saving what they could toward a new apartment and paying their friend what they could afford for rent. They, too, are holding my card, and I will be buying a few things for their daughters as well.

And within hours of that call, a third family, in Knox County, posted an appeal for their 12-month-old daughter for clothing and a few small holiday gifts. They needed diapers and formula, and would really appreciate a sack of dry cat food for their kitty, who was living with them in their car.

Late November. In their car. In Maine.

I haven't yet heard back from that family, but they probably can only check their email when they're at the library ... a good place to spend the day if you're homeless. With a baby.

None of us are in the best financial health of our lives, to be sure. But when you hear stories like these, it makes you realize that there is a lot to be said for having a warm, safe home, with blankets and pillows on the beds, and a place to cuddle up together, even if you can't afford to spend thousands in Christmas presents or a vacation to warmer climes. 

It is outrageous, in the wealthiest nation on earth, that we have families in such dire straits. None of these folks did anything to "deserve" homelessness, or being forced to sleep on a friend's sofa, in a basement, or God forbid, in a car. Their only crimes were losing their jobs, jobs that they had every reason to believe would be secure, and not having enough savings to tide them over until they got a new one. Their crimes were believing in the future enough to produce little hostages to fortune.

At the same time, the governor says we are spending too much in social services. Too much to provide homes for Paul and Elaine, and all the families like them. Too much to make sure that they have access to enough quality food to keep their kids healthy.

That's, of course, nonsense. Collectively, we have an obligation to make sure that poor families don't go to bed hungry or cold, and that poor children have proper winter clothing.  If it is essential that we cut, we must cut elsewhere. Or, to be humane, we should simply say that for the duration, we'll issue bonds and do the right thing by all our citizens for the time being, and sort it all out when times improve.

In the meantime, when you see these appeals, please don't look the other way. These folks have faces ... faces I've seen. Faces ravaged with worry and fear. And we, individually, can do something, even if it's one small thing, to help relieve some of that strain. 

And as the carol goes, you shall yourselves find blessing.

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