I’m back in DC…amongst the hustle and bustle of the rush hour commutes, the endless grad school papers and reading assignments, and of course the never ending to-do list that is life. It’s great to be back with friends and only an affordable phone call away from family. It’s nice to be somewhat settled in my new apartment (though the decorating style of choice is still half full Home Depot moving boxes at the moment).
But man…I haven’t stopped moving since I landed on American soil. Perhaps, it was the decision to come back the day before classes started or the need for me to return to work or maybe even my need to reconnect with everyone I missed spending time with this summer. It also might’ve been the move, being in a wedding, hosting guests at my apartment, and getting sick on re-entry.
I have come back the same, but different. Cliche, I’m well aware. But I can’t help but see my daily routine with new eyes. The bus stop on my morning commute has a small shelter with a single bench. An uncomfortable, curved, and narrow, not-really-meant-to-be-sat-on sort of bench. What is the point of that? I can’t help but think the city is trying to avoid inadvertently creating a place homeless people to take up residence–either sitting or sleeping, as they often do in other parts of the city.
The problem is symptomatic of something greater. A societal problem which makes me uncomfortable even in my home environment. Sure, the first thought might be what’s the big deal with providing a place for the homeless to find temporary respite? But the larger issue here is homelessness in the United States. Why don’t they have a shelter in the first place?
Experiencing what other countries handle well and what they handle poorly has illuminated what the United States does well (and for these numerous things I am eternally grateful to be American) and what they handle poorly. Homelessness, at least here, is also a symptom of a larger problem. An inability and discomfort with mental illness. Both homelessness and mental illness are issues to me which are very uncomfortable. Part of it is the worry that takes root in me from the unknown and unfamiliar. I have thankfully not dealt with homelessness personally, but the foreignness of it and the risk of it makes it all too scary.
I don’t think we know quite what do with homeless people–mentally ill or not. Many people like to reassure themselves that if they work hard, it is avoidable. Thus comes the mindset that “if these people only worked harder, they would not be homeless” is an easy trap to fall into. Really I think that mentality is one of fear. If it’s in your own control, you can prevent it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Mental illness (e.g. I’ve read many homeless people are former veterans with PTSD) and addiction play a huge role–both are seen as warts on society that are both difficult to deal with and difficult to talk about. As do many factors outside of one’s own control (the economy, for one).
I’m not entirely sure what I as an individual can do to overcome my discomfort with these issues, but I am more aware of them now than ever. The poverty that plagues the United States. Why aren’t the people I see on my commute seeking out shelters? Why aren’t shelters seeking them out? Why are the ones struggling with illness not receiving the help that they need?
This brings me to my final point–and please forgive me, it’s election season and I live in the Nation’s Capitol. I firmly believe there is a legitimate debate over how to answer these questions and societal needs. Both government and civil society (individuals) are capable of working on a solution. I am not here to voice my opinion in favor of one method or another (whether governments or individuals should lead the efforts in ameliorating these problems), but rather to bring these issues to the table for discussion and urge that we do something to address them.
I may have never noticed the bench I stand next to every day outside my bus stop if it weren’t for my time away from it. I may have never noticed the homeless man at the Farragut Square who’s there every day working as he can for his livelihood. It’s not an easy world to get established in without a hand up occasionally…establishing credit, trying to pay off medical bills, or find a job with a living wage. But each of these people that I am uncomfortable around have inherent human dignity. I am still trying to find ways to look beyond what the concept of what they deserve to what I can give.
It’s time to forget about what some people think the homeless or mentally ill deserve (and to forget about what we think “we deserve”), and instead focus on the giving of ourselves for the benefit of others. DC is not so different from India insofar as the most uncomfortable moments are the ones most ripe for growth.