Certainly a grim subject for a holiday story, but look and listen well. Start with a look, if you dare, at our ubiquitous tent cities and the unfortunate individuals forced to endure that squalor. Like most of us, I suspect, I shake my head, contribute some money, vote for taxes, do some volunteering and wonder why nothing seems to get better. I wish this piece were about how we could understand, make an impact, create a better world so that everyone’s holiday could be merry and bright. But it’s not. Instead it’s a description of an episode emblematic of the horror of it all and how little it seems we, collectively, seem to do about it. So here’s the tale.
It was early evening. Mark was walking down a Rockridge residential sidewalk. Walking is a generous description for how like a semi-paralytic. He was as cold and wet as the weather. I’ve done my share of walking and driving by the Marks of the world, but this time, I stopped, asked where he was headed and if I could help him get there. Maybe usher him to a shelter or a meal. Or did he even have a destination? None of the answers I got was clear, but we settled on the idea that he might be able to get some help around 20th and MLK. I helped him into the car, lifting in his feet, whose movements were hampered by knees that operated only marginally. Away we went.
We started a conversation about life. (People are the only joy.) Travel. (Where had I been? Where would I like to go next?) It seemed coherent at first, but the same questions and statements kept repeating. Along with “Where are we going”?
Before long we were at 22nd and MLK, where, as I suspected, there was nothing that looked like a care center. My wife had volunteered at nearby St. Mary’s Center, which helps people in Mark’s situation. It was a mile or so away, so we went there. Closed. There was one worker doing some janitorial tasks. He thanked me for trying to do a good deed, but was sad to say covid, etc. had depleted their resources and that there were no caregivers, caseworkers, or any of the people that in other times might have been available. He suggested St. Anthony’s.
By this time it was dark, but I knew about St. Anthony’s. the place. We’d made some donations there in the past, which made me hopeful. I’d passed it on the way to St. Mary’s, but it looked so closed, I didn’t stop. Nevertheless, I had no other clue, and the guy at St. Mary’s seemed to know what was what, so away we went again, carrying on the same conversation as before. I drove around the St. Anthony’s block and found a gate and with some folks sheltering under an overhang, others standing in small groups, talking, smoking. I asked if anyone knew a way I could help Mark. Mostly there was silence except for one gentleman who thought that St. Anthony’s might serve some food in two or three hours. However, one lady–“Dare” was her name–thought if we went to the front of the building, someone might help. She offered to show the way. I had driven past earlier and it had looked pretty securely locked, but she certainly knew the situation better than I did. Plus she had a bit of food in a tattered plastic bag. It looked like small plastic containers of sauce that might come with a burrito or taco. Mark declined it.
Well, we had no better luck at the entrance with Dare than I had had by myself. However, she said maybe we should go to “Social Services,” saying they wouldn’t let him stay out in the rain. Away went another mile or so south. But they–the armed sheriffs at the door–did indeed leave him out in the rain, sent us away with no suggestions for alternatives.
It seemed we were out of options. I wish I could say I was mistaken about the lack of alternatives so I could give this a happy ending. But we were, in truth, as far as I anyone I could talk to knew or was willing to divulge, at the end of our story.
I took Mark and Dare back to St. Anthony’s. Dare to her previous seat on the sidewalk under the overhang. I gave her a drawstring bag in which to carry her meager belongings in as well as the cash in my wallet. I was embarrassed about how little cash I had, but then thought having too much might put her in danger anyhow. Then thought she might have liked to have a choice in the matter. Then I helped Mark out of the car–he didn’t want to stay there. He wanted to go “home.” I finally escorted him to a place on the side walk near Dare. And I left them there.
Maybe it was my lack of imagination or unwillingness to explore further alternatives, but I didn’t know and still don’t know what to do. I’m sure someone will criticize me for heartlessness and cruelty, and I’d be hard put to disagree. But I still don’t know what, as an individual I was to do. The answers have to be in the heartlessness of our institutions, in our collective selves. It seems individuals like me are helpless, acting alone, to make much of a difference . In the richest country in world history, why was no one there when a man like Mark, can’t find a way out of the rain? Why do we allow such situations to grow and fester while people like me sit in warm houses, roofs over our heads, meals in our bellies, take hot showers, and continue to shake our heads, contribute some money, vote for taxes, do some volunteering and wonder why nothing seems to get better? Why is it okay for congress purportedly to vote for $25 billion more for the defense department than the president or the pentagon even asked for while we shake our heads, contribute some money, vote for taxes, do some volunteering and wonder why nothing seems to get better?
“All you need is love,” says the song. And we certainly need that. More than ever. But more than that, we need compassion along with the money and action to back it up. I wonder where Mark and Dare and all their kin are tonight. I have no answers.