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A Meaner, more Selfish Nation

Third in a Series

When the children were young, we decided, as a family, to volunteer at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving. The shelter was located in a former mental health institution (many of these institutions sat empty after we unilaterally decided that mentally ill people would be better off living on the streets or in prison than being “locked up” in a secure facility–I’ll write more about the consequences of that decision in another post) and was, therefore, a rather depressing, run-down edifice that was trying to stay afloat on donations. The building was located out on an island connected by a large bridge over the water–out of sight, out of mind–and as we drove up, the yellow brick building looked neglected and forlorn in the gray light of an overcast day. Entering the building, we walked down a long hallway, the doors of abandoned rooms closed and locked, denying any light from entering. At the end of this long hall was a large room with high windows which let in very little light on this overcast day. The same yellow color covered the walls and the floors, broken only by the gray of tables and chairs.

When we first arrived, there were no residents in the cafeteria. We had arrived early to prepare the meal. People were assigned to cook, make salads, set out desserts or set tables. The children and I joined the group that was setting the tables while my husband joined the group that was cooking. As the meal was being set up on the serving table, the residents began to arrive for dinner. Our next assignment was to serve the guests, to make the occasion more formal than the normal cafeteria-style meal of every day. As I watched the residents arrive I was surprised that most were dressed for a special occasion in clothing that looked appropriate for working in an office downtown. Once we had served everyone and had asked people if they wanted seconds, we sat down to visit with them. That’s when I discovered what the word “homeless” really meant.

The people in this room were all working adults. Every morning a bus would roll up to the front door to take them to the nearest subway station so they could get to their jobs. That same bus would pick them up in the evening and bring them back to the shelter. So, if they were working, why were they living in a homeless shelter? To begin with, the rents for even a studio in the Greater Boston area are ridiculously high. Add to that the necessity of coming up with first and last month’s rent and a security deposit (in 2013 that could mean $4,000 or more) and you can see how someone In a low-wage job would have trouble finding housing. One young woman had been living with a roommate and when her roommate left. She could no longer afford the rent and didn’t have enough money to rent a new apartment. She was living in the shelter trying to save up enough money to pay that first installment on a new apartment. Another gentleman was divorced and most of his paycheck went to support his former wife and his children. He wasn’t sure if he would ever make enough money in his minimum-wage job to ever afford to live anywhere but a homeless shelter. Someone else had just lost a job that had kept him in the middle class and was working in a low-wage job. He was so embarrassed that he had cut himself off from all of his acquaintances, and thus had no support system, other than the staff and the other residents of the homeless shelter, to help him rebuild his self esteem.

I walked away from this experience feeling like this last man: embarrassed. Embarrassed about my own ignorance of what homelessness is and who the people are behind that catch-all word. Yes, some of them may have substance-abuse problems, some of them may have mental health issues, but many of them are just down on their luck–those for whom we say “There, but for the grace of God…”. Whoever they are, what ever their need, those of us who have not yet experienced these hardships must not only have compassion but must work to provide the services and help that others need to enable them to join and to contribute to a society that realizes that we are all in this together.

A Meaner, More Selfish Nation

Second in a Series

When my mother was in high school, her father died of a brain aneurism. With no pension, no income and no way to pay the bills, my mother was forced to quit school and get a job to support her family. Years later, after she got married, she and my father began looking to buy a house. My grandmother, fearing being left alone, asked them if they wanted to buy her home. Allowing grandma to stay in the home was sort of an unspoken agreement. Back in the day, many homes were multi-generational and a lot of us grew up with grandparents in the home. For years my parents wrote a check every month to my grandmother and she would get dressed up and take the bus downtown to spend the day seeing a movie, shopping, having lunch and buying a bag of candy to hide in her dresser. My parents continued to give Grandma a check every month for the rest of her life, long after the mortgage was paid off, I’m sure. Grandma passed away at the age of 86 in the bedroom she had slept in for most of her life.

My parents never begrudged the fact that they were grandma’s support. In fact, the third pair of hands and unlimited love surely helped out as their young family grew. My father, however, decided that people should not have to worry about becoming destitute when they lost their spouse or their job, so, as a member of a union, he began to bargain with his company for pensions that would allow retirees and their spouses to live comfortably after a lifetime of service. He fought for disability insurance for people injured on the job, he fought for lifetime healthcare and he voted for candidates who would fight for these same benefits for all Americans: Social Security, SSI Disability Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. After a lifetime of hard work, he retired with a safety net that not only allowed he and my mother to live comfortably after he retired, but with enough money to help his children when they needed it.

He passed away 10 years ago. My mother was able to stay in her home thanks to the safety net he had fought for during his lifetime. My mother passed away this past summer at 94 (in the same bedroom my grandmother had died in) and toward the end, we talked about how sad my father would be today if he could see all of the things he fought so hard for being dismantled by a new, more selfish generation that has never experienced the hardships their grandparents experienced. A generation that lived through a Great Recession instead of a Great Depression because this time we have Unemployment Insurance, food stamps, Medicaid and a welfare system that catches many people before they fall through the cracks.

If you think we no longer need organizations that support working men and women, look around you. Will your parents have to rely on you to support them once they retire? Will you fall into debt trying to pay their medical bills? Will you have to decide wether to pay for college for your children or use the money to pay for grandma’s care? If you’re lucky, your parents are “grandfathered in” (pun intended) and will be covered by the current system, but what about you? Are you ready to put that responsibility on your own children as YOU age into retirement?

A Meaner, More Selfish Nation

First in a Series

The older I get the more interested I become in learning about historical events, especially here in the United States–something, unfortunately, too many Americans don’t care about. I know I am living in a period of history that will literally change the course of this nation, and, in fact, the world. I would like to be 100 years into the future reading about how we worked through the current tumult to become a greater people. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury. I, like everyone else, will have to live through this upheaval and experience the Sisyphean frustration of pushing for changes while watching grand ideas take baby steps to get us to the next level. Oh, I know we’ll get there eventually, I am a student of history so I know what great things the species has accomplished in the past, but a lifetime is but a second in the annuls of history, and the changes that will make for a better world may not happen in my lifetime.

My grandmother was born in the 19th century, my granddaughter was born in the 21st century. Three centuries sounds like a long time, but in some ways it is only a lifetime. In my life I have experienced life as my grandmother lived it and part of the life my granddaughter has lived and I am awed and astonished by the changes that have occurred in just five generations, in just the time I have been alive. So I know we will weather this latest storm of uncertainty, but I also know that, like those in the Philippines after this latest disaster, some of us will survive and some of us won’t. I only hope that, as the most intelligent creatures on the planet, we will begin to understand that to survive we must stop being what sometimes feels like the meanest, most selfish humans this nation, this world, has ever seen and learn that we must work together for the common good for our very survival. Not just to exist, but to thrive.