Under the Overpass

In 2008 I made three consecutive trips to Chicago.  I wanted to buy a new violin bow and I knew a shop down there that I trusted. I boarded the train three weeks in a row, early on Saturday mornings, and after getting off at Clybourn, I would walk the two and a half miles to the store.  On the last trip I was feeling joyous because I had tried a new bow for a week and I was going to surrender my old one for them to sell on commission and purchase the new one.  A new violin bow is a lot of money, at least a good one is.  The violins themselves can be more than a million dollars, but a dilettante like me only has a fiddle worth 1.2k and a bow of about the same value… Still, to the average person, a thousand dollars is a lot of money for a stick of pernambuco wood and some horse hair.  To a violinist, it’s a good bow for the level of playing I expected to do.

I got off the train and walked the steps from the platform to the street.  From there I crossed under the overpass.  My first shock came as I was walking (it was still early because I was taking the first train out on those mornings), and as I passed some support girders I nearly jumped up into the platform above from the street.  There was a man sleeping between the girders not 3 inches from my feet!  Startled, I walked a bit faster, and looking around me I noticed something I hadn’t seen the previous two weeks.

There were sleeping bags under the overpass with people in them, and two (Dora the Explorer bags) held children.

I felt my heart lurch seeing that.  I think intellectually we all know that people live in terrible poverty in the big cities of the US, but I think there’s a jaded quality, at times, too to that knowledge.  I have heard people tell me that many of the beggars in Chicago (for example) are “fake” beggars who have real jobs and sit out on the sidewalk in a costume on weekends.  (I don’t actually believe this is true, of course, but this has been said to me in order to encourage me not to give them money.)  I have heard other people scold me for giving my money to them because “that money won’t really help them.”

That’s really the trouble with a society based on rampant capitalism with no checks whatsoever to it, isn’t it?  There’s no amount of money (not really) that a single person like me could throw at a beggar and rescue them from their poverty.  I could pay for a meal.  I could have gone (and thought about doing it) and returned the bow and taken the thousand dollars I was going to pay for it and given it to that family instead.  But what would a thousand dollars be in the regard to the issues facing a family living on the streets in Chicago?  They could have run somewhere with it and tried to get a room, it’s true.  They could have fed their children.

I still wish I hadn’t bought that bow.  I didn’t need it.  To tell the truth, I upgraded a bow that I didn’t need because the bow is nicer, but how often have I used it since to enjoy the quality?  That family could have used my charity far more, but part of me rails at the fact that even a thousand dollars couldn’t rescue that family because their homelessness was likely a symptom of a cycle of joblessness that had taken root.  It might have gotten them a month off the street (valuable in and of itself), but it wouldn’t have secured them against having their babies in sleeping bags under an overpass in late fall.

When people of the United States use the word socialist as an epithet to refer to people like me, who believe that it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that every citizen has a standard of living that prevents things like what I saw under that overpass, I have to wonder where their priorities are.  Surely these people cannot be happy there are families who have no place to sleep all across our country?  Surely these humans cannot be glad that there is so much poverty that half the children attending school in the US are considered to be living at “poverty level”?

And it doesn’t matter to me that the reason that family was under the bridge might indeed have been because of poor life choices.  I think we have to ask ourselves if that makes it alright that a family should become homeless.  I think we have to ask ourselves if we’re okay with humans having a tough time in life and being made homeless.

I personally know two families right now who would be homeless if not for the charity of their families.  Not every contributing factor in their stories has been bad decisions on their part.  The plain, ugly truth is that it’s very easy to become bankrupt in the United States, and very hard to climb out of that terrible pit if you happen to fall into it.  If you don’t have insurance, you’re just a broken leg away from having another house-worth of debt added to your name.  There might not be debtor’s prisons in the US anymore, but you can lose everything you have to debt.  These two families that I know have been relying on the charity of their family to keep their children under a roof.  If not for their families their children would very literally be in sleeping bags somewhere in the winter nights.

I don’t understand why this is alright, and I don’t understand why the people who don’t believe it’s alright are vituperatively labelled as socialists.

Do you know what happens when you raise the standard of living to a level such that the poorest members of society won’t be homeless?

You reduce crime.
You offer families dignity in the face of hard situations.
You create opportunities instead of statistics.
You give all children a chance at an equal education because homeless children have a far harder time learning anything.
You show that you care about the people around you who live and work alongside you, who share your streets, your schools, and your city.

What is wrong with these things?  What is wrong with asking that our society show compassion for bad luck?  Why should charity be private and not public?

The children in those pink and purple bags are grown up now.  I often think of them.  I think of how I could have helped them.  I wish that I had.  My money was badly spent that day because there were people who needed it much more, and sometimes when I play my violin I think of two girls under an overpass that I walked by on a cold morning in Chicago without stopping.

When will we not leave the poor on the streets in the richest country on Earth?

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on February 17, 2017.

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