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Migrations [Jan. 30th, 2010|09:15 am]
We tend to think of migrations as a "there goes the migrating critter off the wherever said critter goes for the winter". Or, if you're a mild animal geek, you know it's not just about winter, about food or water, mating or breeding grounds and can happen at whatever time of year. If you're a real critter geek, then you also know about the bug migrations -- the Monarch butterflies heading for Mexico, the dragonflies who travel 18,000 kilometers...although admittedly, it's over generations, which to me, isn't nearly as impressive as the my tiny little hummingbirds making it all the way down to Mexico and back each year.

Right now, though my mid-day dog walks are coinciding with a different migration. We have a pair of homeless people who migrate through Kensington almost every day, weather permitting. Down my street about noon. They've been doing this for several years now. I don't know where they go to, or where they come from. I do know that they carry so much stuff that they don't just walk to where they're going. They leapfrog. You'll find the woman standing with a pile of their belongings, while the man walks forward about half a block, puts down what he's carrying. Walks back to where the woman is, picks up half the load that she's watching. And they both walk forward to where he put down the first load. Sometimes they alter who goes first, who waits. Sometimes they leave the stuff behind, both walk forward and then one or the other, or both, come back.

Every once in a while, they will have only enough stuff, that they can actually just walk to where they're going. But then it starts to accumulate again. And people, trying to help them out, give them rolling duffles, knapsacks, luggage carts. That was my first instinct too. But I've watched them long enough now, observed them, if you will, to realize that the wheelie luggage, the grocery carts...just enables them to carry more stuff. Sure, for a day or two, all of their belongings will fit into the new carriers. But by the end of the week, they're back to leapfrogging it, carrying five or six plastic grocery bags full of other things.

And while there may well be treasures hidden in the centers of those plastic grocery bags, my cursory examination has seen mostly...more plastic bags. I don't know the couple's names. But our walks coincide and we've progressed beyond the New England Nod of Acknowledgement to exchanging pleasantries, talking about the weather, talking about greyhounds. Percy, of course, is fascinated by them. Not only will them pet them, but they obviously are a treasure trove of odor compared to most people he meets.

And it's really hard for me. Because the latent field biologist/anthropologist/behaviorist in me wants to know details. Where are they going, where are they coming from, what's in all of those bags, how did they get to this place in their lives, did they get here together, or did they meet as migrating homeless?

And part of me is horrified by what this part of me thinks of as prurient curiosity and wants to know if they need help, can I do something for them. I want find them a safe place and make sure they have a roof and food and clothes and....

But I settle for treating them the same way as I would treat anyone that I would pass by, walking the dog. And figure that the most useful thing I can give them, really, is respect and by treating them as my social equal.

Which no doubt, some of you may be uncomfortable with. Mere, isn't that a little patronizing?

Maybe. I mean, I'm very conscious of my nice black coat. That my dog has two coats on. That I wash on a regular basis. And it's cold, and we're hurrying back to a warm house. And on the way into that house, I'm going to pass by the insulated house we built for Mamacat, the feral cat that's adopted us. I have built a house (or caused a house to be built) for a feral cat, but all I'm going to do for these people is conversation, respect?

How very British Empire of me!

Well, in my favor, I decided that at some point I had to draw a line. You can't save everyone/everything. No matter how hard I try, greyhounds are going to be starved to death, hauled to a pit and shot, or thrown to the gators in the Everglades. I can donate all the blood I can and people will still die from the lack of it. I can let Walter Reed inject me with all of the experimental vaccines they want and people will still die from Malaria. I can let NIH use me as a guinea pig and probably never be part of "the cure" for whatever they're trying to fix. I could donate more than 10% of my income to charitable causes and still not make a dent. I could completely forget about having any shred of personal life and I still won't get done all that needs to get done for a certain non-profit organization that puts on a Renaissance Faire.

But...a man riding along sees a sparrow lying on its back in the middle of the road, it's tiny little legs stretched up in the air. "Why are you laying in the road, Sparrow?" he asks. "Well, good sir, I have been told that the sky is falling, so I thought I would try to support it" said the sparrow. "You stupid bird, your spindly little feet can't keep the sky from falling!" exclaimed the man. "Well, sir, if I can hold up my part, that's better than doing nothing."

No one can hold up the whole sky. Just hold up your part.

And homelessness is like everything else -- it's not a simple, easy problem, and it's frankly, a damned stupid label, that I think leads us to waste a lot of time, effort and rhetoric. There are plenty of homeless people who got there because of bad luck, bad timing, misfortune, bad choices. They can be helped with money, temporary shelter, job assistance.

These folks -- well, you tell me, can I call them mentally ill? I worked in a psychiatric hospital; I'm not qualified to diagnose, but yeah, there's an illness here. Something that won't let them throw out those plastic bags. Something that won't let them pack light. It's a tough call; living near and working in a town that housed the State Mental Hospital, where patients regularly got released...as a combination of budget cuts and a move to not "imprison" people for their illnesses...released to inadquate supervision/support. To a place where there was no one to remind them to take their meds. Or refill their prescription.

I don't know...is it right to wish we could just implant the meds like Norplant? Tagging people with medication darts at a distance, like deer contraception? Is that my desire to impose my will and standards on others? I'm I still a little shaken by an incident where a fairly recently released patient who just, out of the blue, grabbed a little girl on the street in the middle of the day and stabbed her to death? He was no murderer, no stalker who got a thrill out of causing harm to others. He was a guy who'd spent most of his life in an institution then got thrown out with a months worth of meds and a slip of paper with an address where he could get more. The woman, a long time "living on the street" resident, who threw herself against my car window one day, screaming "I know who you are, Mindy Saperstein, I know what you did!"...yes, screw it, grab her, sedate her, hospitalize her, treat her, figure out what's wrong with her and freaking fix it. My god, if she was running around the streets, flailing a broken arm, she'd be taken in against her will, we'd fix it.

But of course, we know HOW to fix a broken arm. My wish is that cloning DID work, so that I could devote a couple of clone lives to finding out how to repair brain chemistry as easily as bones.

And plenty of people struggle with imperfect brain chemistry and make the fixes we do have, work. Mindy Saperstein's Nemesis needed more than what she was getting. My migratory couple? I don't know -- are they hurting anyone? No. They seem well fed and otherwise healthy, just dirty by our standards. The carrying of the stuff, the daily migration...does that need to be fixed? What's more patronizing -- thinking that what's most helpful to them is respect and normal treatment, darting them with meds because their lifestyle doesn't seem pleasant or assuming that $20 is what they need? I don't have an answer to that, or any of these questions.

Sometimes you just need to take a deep cleansing breath and just worry about the part of the sky that your own legs can hold.

[User Picture]From: sestree
2010-01-30 02:29 pm (UTC)
I didn't know you worked in a psych hospital.

It's tough. Many homeless are ones who fell through the cracks - they're developmentally disabled but not so disabled that they can't manage to trudge through as best they can. Mentality of maybe a 10 year old instead of a 2 year old.

Trapping and releasing doesn't work in those cases. We used to see them wander through the institutions I worked in -- but normally only when they hit the hospital due to dehydration/illness/beatings/etc.

As for the mentally ill? tough call. Many like the fantasy world that exists when they're unmedicated. I know two practising schizophrenics that prefer UNmedication. The real world is just.too.scary.
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2010-01-30 05:15 pm (UTC)
yeah, first as an adolescent unit admin, then as a marketing director.
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[User Picture]From: im_geva
2010-01-30 03:28 pm (UTC)
But respect is often what they crave.

And what they don't get from most people.
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[User Picture]From: giantsloth
2010-01-30 03:55 pm (UTC)
This is a great post. I don't have a lot more to add. I wish more people hung out at this level of thoughtfulness more of the time.
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2010-01-30 05:17 pm (UTC)
It's very busy in the salon of my head...writing it down keeps it from becoming an endless loop in my head. Thanks...
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[User Picture]From: pyratelady
2010-01-30 04:38 pm (UTC)
You might think it's very British Empire of you, but they probably appreciate the courtesy and respect that you show for them. I imagine that if they wanted something, they'd ask you for it.

The plastic bag hoarding makes me wonder if hoarding caused them to lose their home in the first place... maybe their house was condemned.

I remember once I bought a cheeseburger for a homeless man who I used to walk past every day on my way home from work in D.C. He was always mumbling something inarticulate whenever I'd pass him, so he shocked the hell out of me by turning and saying quite clearly, "No, thank you."
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[User Picture]From: terribleturnip
2010-01-30 05:22 pm (UTC)
When we first opened unnamed gourmet store, we would take all of the leftover sandwiches at the end of the evening and take them out to the streets of unnamed DC neighborhood to hand out to the homeless people.

Who would then say "Proscuitto on Kalamata Olive Bread? I want chicken salad" or "Don't you have anything on white bread?" I had to stop doing it, because after a day of having customers treat me like dogsh*t for 12 hours, the last thing I needed was to have someone who had no food then give me dogsh*t because the free food was too fancy.

Which is why I have the utmost respect for anyone who works with the homeless because....just because you're homeless doesn't mean you're still not an a-hole.

And why I have animals, because when they turn up their nose at some expensive food I bought them or made by hand, no one will think poorly of me hollering "eat your damn food, I slaved all day for it and you should be grateful." Although, I suppose if I were on a street corner, they might....hmmm.
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[User Picture]From: ferlonda
2010-01-31 06:25 am (UTC)
Respect is sometimes a better fit than a prosciutto on kalamata olive bread.
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[User Picture]From: skivee
2010-01-31 04:49 pm (UTC)
I don't get the respect anyway, so I'll take the prosiutto sandwich...even if it IS on that fucking yuppie olive bread.
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