Leonard Pitts Jr

September 2, 2012

The poor aren’t part of the narrative for either political party

Charlotte, N.C. George Farmer does not want to be here when the Democrats come to town. “Personally,” he says, “that’s the time I want to be so far away from here. I’m almost at a place where that has nothing to do with me.”

George Farmer does not want to be here when the Democrats come to town. “Personally,” he says, “that’s the time I want to be so far away from here. I’m almost at a place where that has nothing to do with me.”

But Farmer, trim and soft spoken at 61, is homeless. So when the Democratic National Convention convenes Tuesday, he is likely to be found in the same place he has been for more than a year: the Charlotte Men’s Shelter, blocks from the arena where conventioneers will gather.

His desire to get away from the conclave has nothing to do with fears of congestion or inconvenience. Nor, for that matter, with any particular disagreement with Democratic politics.

“I voted,” he says. He is perched on a chair in a sparsely furnished office of the shelter he calls home. “I voted for Obama, and I was real active in those things. And now, with this situation that’s come up, I have a tendency to look at things like: Those that’ll be here are people that haven’t been subjected to the things we have. It’ll be a gathering, to me, of people that are well-to-do – not for people who have struggled.”

People who have struggled.

Them that ain’t got.

The busted and disgusted.

Poor folk.

An invisible army

Whatever your preferred euphemism, know this: They are an army and they are growing. The poverty rate stands at 15.1 percent as of 2010, the last year for which statistics are available. In North Carolina, the rate is even higher at 17.5 percent. In absolute numbers, the national rate translates to 46.2 million Americans, the most ever recorded in the 53 years America has been calculating poverty.

The federal government defines poverty as a person under 65 living alone on less than $11,344 a year or a family of four scraping by on less than $22,113. But the folks who live there know that poverty is more than just a number. It is the job you don’t get because the bus doesn’t go there. It is shorting the gas bill in order to pay the rent. It is “miss-meal cramps” and going to the mall for the air conditioning. It is a gnawing insufficiency that never goes away, having not enough in a land of plenty. It is walking life like a tightrope because the hit that might only wobble someone else – illness, loss of hours, an unexpected bill – will knock you clean off.

And, it is an invisibility so complete as to deny your very existence, the experience of having people look right at you and never see you.

Which is the point of George Farmer’s observation and his antipathy.

Deafening silence

When President Barack Obama is renominated this week, you can expect much to be said about what he will do for the middle class, much more to be said about the obligations of the upper class. You can expect silence about the needs of the underclass. This from the former community organizer who once described urban poverty as “the cause that led me to a life of public service.”

Obama’s silence is hardly unique. With the singular exception of the unfortunate former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, it is difficult, if not impossible, to name a politician who has made poverty a cornerstone issue since Lyndon Johnson spoke out for the Americans who “live on the outskirts of hope.”

Johnson’s War on Poverty was the culmination of decades in which the nation – stirred by the journalist Jacob Riis, galvanized by the country populist Huey Long, roused by the writer John Steinbeck, and led through a crushing economic crucible by the president, Franklin Roosevelt – came to identify the fight against poverty as a moral imperative.

But those days are gone. The poor have disappeared from our political consciousness – and conscience. Nor is that disappearance only political. It is also cultural. African-American music once filled radios with the lament of the poor. In the 1930s, Billie Holiday sang, “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.” In the ’60s, Stevie Wonder sang that he was “a poor man’s son from across the railroad track.” In the ’70s the Temptations sang, “Money, I ain’t got none. Job, can’t find one.” In 2010, Lloyd Banks rapped, “Beamer, Benz or Bentley, my jeans are never empty.” African-American music is now a song of conspicuous consumption and product placement.

Poor people also are absent from television. In dramas, they are seldom seen, except as victims or criminals. Sitcom families, with few exceptions – the Evanses of Good Times, the Sanfords of Sanford and Son, the Conners of Roseanne – are always happily middle class if not flat out wealthy.

Nor do the poor fare much better in news media. When Hurricane Katrina sacked New Orleans and reports told us how thousands of Americans were so entrenched in poverty as to lack the means to escape a killer storm, one word was heard over and over again from newspeople and observers: surprised. As in the reader who emailed the New York Times, saying, “I was surprised to learn of the poverty conditions that prevailed in New Orleans. Why didn’t the economic-social-racial conditions in New Orleans get some attention in the paper?’’

Why, indeed?

Bashing the poor

And in the face of this silence, it has become increasingly fashionable in some corners to bash the poor in language that is literally inhuman. For instance, former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer likened poor people to stray animals one ought not feed at the back door, Ann Coulter said welfare creates “irresponsible animals” and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning compared the poor to scavenging “raccoons.”

George Farmer is not a scavenging raccoon. He used to drive trucks for a living. Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He tried to go on working, but couldn’t. Then his car broke down.

“Just a lot of things,” he says. “Went from a house to an apartment to a room situation and really couldn’t afford that. So the shelter was my option.”

The experience, he says, has taught him to appreciate the tiny graces he once took for granted. “Just everyday life,” he says, “working and coming home to a place where you can select clothes from a rack as opposed to digging in a bag trying to find something to put on. To be in line to take a shower, to be in line to eat, soup kitchens and stuff that was not really common to me. This was not something that I could’ve seen myself (experiencing) at this point in my life.”

It troubles him that people think homeless is something he decided to be, some bad choice he made or moral defect he carries. “I mean, kids on buses come by and blurt out things and look at it as like, a life you’ve chosen, as opposed to, these are the turn of events that took place that brought you here.”

The single mom

Come now and sit with Michelle – she doesn’t want her last name used – for a moment. She is a single mother of four girls, two of them in college on scholarships. She is meeting with Kyle Walker, a woman who works as a counselor for Crisis Assistance Ministry. As the name implies, it exists to help people who have hit some unforeseen emergency that throws them off the tightrope. Michelle’s rent is overdue and her lights are about to be shut off.

“We’re just barely makin’ it,” she says. “That’s why I’m down here because, after awhile, things are catchin’ a domino effect. I’m robbin’ Peter to pay Paul. Now I’m here. Hopefully, I can catch up when I leave here and then I’ll start the process all over again until something else comes along.

“I’ve worked,” she says. “I’ve owned my own businesses. But it got to the point where people can’t afford to have what I used to provide for them.” Michelle, who was a self-employed appliance repair technician, says, “that’s kind of dried up and basically gone. It’s not even cost-effective for me to have inventory because the inventory isn’t moving. I’m not lazy at all. Right now, my goal is to keep a roof over my daughters’ heads.”

Walker itemizes Michelle’s expenses. Her monthly net income is $694 from Social Security, plus food stamps. Her rent is $600, her electric bill runs $150, she spends $30 on the bus. Her expenses total $830.

Walker does some calculating, then tells Michelle the Crisis Ministry will pay her electric bill for her. And Michelle, a composed woman, thanks her. Then Walker says something Michelle did not expect: The Ministry will also catch her up on her rent. Michelle gasps. Then she weeps. “Oh my God,” she says softly, her head sagging. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Anybody can be on any side of this desk at any time,” Walker tells her. “We all struggle. And that is why this agency is here, OK?”

“You don’t know,” says Michelle, dabbing at her eyes, struggling to rebuild her composure. “I just try to be a good person. I try not to ask anybody for anything. I just want to raise my girls.”

And, yes, the fact that Michelle is still not out of the woods is as obvious as the gap between the $694 she receives each month, and the $830 she spends. Still, it is unlikely Walker will see her again anytime soon. She will find some way to make it. Those the Ministry assists typically only need help that one time.

Making it or not

It is uncommon for counselors to see the same people twice in one year. What is striking, in watching Walker work, is how heartbreakingly little money can represent the difference between someone making it and not, between staying on the tightrope or falling down and through what’s left of the safety net. We are talking the kind of money more fortunate people might spend on a cable bill or a restaurant meal.

Carson Dean, executive director of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, tells this story of a veteran who had driven heavy trucks in the military. He had to apply to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles to have his military credentials transferred into something he could use to get a job in civilian life. He was $2 short on the fee. This veteran stood in the DMV parking lot for 45 minutes, begging for $2 – without success. So he didn’t get the license, and he didn’t get the job.

“Two dollars,” says Dean. “The guy could have had the license and been able to get a job driving a truck because of his military experience. Two dollars. And instead, he’s living in a homeless shelter. That’s an extreme case, but we’re often talking a matter of a few hundred bucks.”

The frustration you hear is not just for the piddling amount, but also, more broadly for the sense that fixing this is doable, if we had only the will. Not easy, not fast, but doable. Granted, this is not the conventional wisdom where poverty is concerned. The conventional wisdom says poverty is immutable and intractable. The poor you will always have with you, Jesus is often quoted out of context as saying. Talk to advocates for the poor, and they beg to differ.

Fixing entrenched poverty

Homelessness, insists Dean, could be fixed not simply within his lifetime, but before he retires. “Really, it only dates back the last 30-35 years. Before the late ’70s, there really wasn’t much homelessness in this country. Then in the ’80s, we saw this explosion and we saw this whole system created to deal with it. Before that, you have to go back to the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression to see anything near the relative numbers of homeless people that we’re experiencing today.”

He says homelessness is not a natural phenomenon, but rather came about largely through the crack cocaine explosion that festered in lower-income neighborhoods and through Reagan-era housing policies that decimated affordable housing. “If it’s something we created,” he says, “obviously there are ways to solve it.”

Darren Ash of Charlotte Family Housing says the key to fixing entrenched poverty requires that the dignity of the person in poverty be respected. He has little patience with those on the extreme left who believe the government should do everything for you except tuck you in at night and those on the extreme right who think poverty is best handled by leaving the poor to the tender mercies of the all-knowing free market.

He prefers to steer a middle path. He describes it as teaching a person to fish – but also making sure the pond is stocked. “We believe you’re a strong person, we believe you’re not a charity case. Because of that strong belief, we are not going to do for you what you’re capable of doing for yourself.” But stock the pond, he says, first with shelters so that the homeless can be rescued from the immediate crisis of living in the streets. “We have to build a platform from there for you to move back into housing, to be advocated for, for there to be a short-term rental subsidy, for there to be interest-free micro loans, for there to be interest-free car purchase plans, for us to combat some of the predatory lending practices that happen to the underclass.”

‘Getting people housed’

Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry Center, says he would love to hear the president, in accepting his party’s nomination, declare “that housing is a human right for everybody.”

This is the focus of the work the center does. “Housing’s the answer to homelessness,” he says, “not shelter, not emergency services. There’s a role for some emergency services, but what we see that changes lives is getting people housed.” If you focus on helping people get housed he says, instead of just sheltered, and then provide those people with support services, “we see their health improve, we see their behavior improve and we see their cost to the community go way down.”

Justin Markel, a former appraiser disabled by a muscular illness and by Parkinson’s, lives in an Urban Ministry Center apartment. It is a spartan space, reminiscent of your average dorm room. But Markel takes an obvious pride in his home. Like George Farmer, he understands that having a place of your own is something you do not take for granted.

“When you’re in a shelter,” he says, “there is no independence. You’re on their timetable, you eat when they say eat, you eat what they feed you, you’ve got to be back at a certain time to check in, you’ve got to leave at a certain time in the morning. Everything is really governed for you. I’m used to handling my own schedule and doing my own thing and eating my own food and cooking my own things. That all disappears. It really was a different situation for me.”

His neighbor, Carlotta Mauney, agrees. “You feel like you’re nobody,” she adds, “because you can’t even have the basic things that normal people have.”

But now, says Mauney, a recovering addict, her life has been changed by Urban Ministry and a small piece of metal. “I love the fact that I’ve got a key to my own place,” she says. “It’s home. And it’s mine. I don’t have to depend on somebody else for a handout. That’s a positive step in the right direction for me. Some people might not think it’s a big step, but I do, ’cause I know where I’ve been.”

These are the stories that will not be told this week when the Democrats gather. These are the people who will not be talked about – or seen.

Ash is not surprised. “You don’t target the invisible people in your country,” he says. “They’re truly invisible. I mean, I’ve watched upper middle-class people go to restaurants and they look at who’s waiting on them almost like they’re invisible. They’re looking through them.”

You do not hear advocates say government should fix poverty. But they do feel government should play a more energetic role in partnership with private entities and the faith community in helping those the Bible calls “the least of these.” They do say this silence is unconscionable.

‘Walk in their shoes’

Carol Hardison, the CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, runs a poverty simulation that, she says, “stuns” and “awakens” people who take it, blowing away their notions of what it means to be poor. She has this fantasy of a TV show like Undercover Boss where political leaders, before voting on some issue that impacts the less fortunate, would have to spend some time in undercover poverty, to “walk in their shoes for one week.”

“I seriously wonder how I could do it,” she says. “ I don’t think I could. A lot of times, people will suggest that maybe it’s also a money management problem. They’ll quickly say to you, ‘Teach them money management.’ I’ll say, I’ve never seen a person make a dollar go so far. I have never seen a person get so much food walk in with $10 and come out of the grocery with $5 left.”

It is, she says, immoral that we no longer speak of things like this on the national level. And it is.

Forty-six million Americans live in poverty. And while there are some who are there because they made – and make – self-destructive choices, some who are there because of addiction to drugs or alcohol or because they are mentally ill, most of those who are there are not terribly different from anyone else, not terribly different from the delegates who will throng the Democratic convention this week. Granted, it is comforting to believe otherwise, comforting to believe the line separating them from you is Hulk-strong and neon bright, that their situation reflects some failing – moral, spiritual, intellectual – that you, righteous soul, do not suffer. Comforting. But then, self-delusion often is.

Life happened to them, same as it happens to anyone. And they deserve what anyone would want. Not a handout nor even just help, but first, an acknowledgement that they are there.

See me. Speak my name. Make me real.

Not that George Farmer is holding his breath. The Democratic Convention, he says, will surely be good for some people, but it is meaningless to him and to those like him “who are still stuck at a certain place.”

So he just wishes he could get away from the whole thing. “It basically reaches out and speaks to numbers that I am not a part of.”

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