“You try hard not to care about the homeless
‘Cause you got your own mess.
You barely make enough for you.
Well is she all lies? Should you apologize?”
— Crystal Waters, Gypsy Woman
On a recent visit to Portland, I was coming out of the door of an organic co-op market with a bag of wine, grapes, and flax chips and a woman on a bench stopped me. “Baby,” she said. “Can you help me with some spare change?” I can tell you that I wanted to help her. I can tell you that I didn’t have any spare change. I can tell you that I murmured that I was sorry and that I kept walking. I can tell you I still feel bad about it today. I can still her her calling me “Baby.” She probably calls everyone “Baby,” but for some reason, it made me feel egregiously evil.
My friend Matt used to poke fun at my bleeding heart. When we lived in San Francisco, I’d stop to give people money and he’d remind me that most of them made more than I did. And it was true. At the height of the tech boom, we lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I barely made ends meet with my marketing gig, but insisted on appearing normal, subsisting on Skippy and Jack Daniels between nights out with better-paid pals. A friend and I were recently reminiscing over $4 coffees, laughing about those leaner times, admitting that, once, we only had $10, $5, $2 in our checking accounts and how uncomfortable it was and blah, blah, blah.
But even then we were never really poor.
“She wakes up early every morning just to do her hair now
Because she cares ya’ll.
Her day wouldn’t be right without her make up
She’s never out of makeup.”
Crystal Waters wrote “Gypsy Woman” about a woman who used to busk in front of her sister’s office. The busking woman was well dressed and in full make-up and Waters couldn’t understand what the woman needed money for. Then, the local paper highlighted the woman — she’d just lost her job in retail and she thought it would be more ‘respectful’ to her audience to keep her appearance up, to let them know that the money would go for upkeep instead of drugs or booze. It changed Ms. Waters’ perspective of homelessness — that we’re all just a few bad breaks away — and Waters immortalized her shift in perception in the song.
When “Gypsy Woman” hit the airwaves, I thought Ms. Waters was playing out a metaphor. There weren’t many panhandlers in Montana, let alone folks busking for money. Though my family’s relationship with money might best be termed “whimsical,” we were never in need as a unit.
What I did know was the school bus. I knew that the kids who lived on the hill, like me, had shiny lunch boxes and clothes decorated with brand names. The kids who got picked up at the bottom of the hill carried paper sacks and supposedly smelled like kitty litter. And we weren’t supposed to like each other. Never mind that wealth was deceptive on each end, we treated each other like we were supposed to — with the quiet disdain we’d learned from our community. A disdain I am ashamed of even now.
It wasn’t until I moved to LA, San Francisco, Seattle that I saw women and girls at the downtown Sephora applying the samples and darting out the door. A little mascara to feel awake, a little blush to pick up the pace, lipstick to look more lively. Maybe they wanted to feel good, maybe they needed to look alluring, maybe — like the Gypsy Woman — they just need to maintain their dignity. They never stood still very long even if I’d screwed up the courage to ask why.
“In my sleep I see her begging, reaching, ‘please’
Although the fault is not mine, I ask, ‘God why, God why?’
She’s just like you and me,
But she’s homeless, she’s homeless.”
If we were too busy dancing to absorb the “Gypsy Woman” message in the 90’s, the Great Recession brought it to relevance again. As the financial system imploded, professional jobs were lost quickly and quietly, jobs which aren’t likely return now that companies have learned to run leaner machines. The shit rolled downhill to the landlords who sat blinking at empty buildings, the owners of flailing cafes and dry cleaners, the college grads relegated to basements.
It is now very clear how a few bad decisions can wipe people out, people with intentions both pure and sullied. We watched calamity befall the real estate flippers and the people who finally found their tiny dream cottage. We watched disaster engulf the job hoppers and the underemployed. We saw the gamblers and the cautious be snared in the same nets. Suddenly no one had no room for mistakes on the balance sheet. Suddenly people were leveraged to the hilt. We watched them add a pregnancy or a health problem or a natural disaster. It was over. Turn in the keys and burn the plastic.
On September 12th, the latest census numbers were released for poverty levels in the US. In 2007, the poverty rate for the US was 12.5%. In 2011, it held steady from the prior year at 15% after increasing for three straight years. That equates to 46.2 million people living below the poverty level, making $11,484 a year as an individual or $23,021 a year as a family of four. By my rough math, thats 1.1 million new people living under the poverty line since 2007. That’s bigger than the population of my home state.
“She’s just like you and me,
But she’s homeless, she’s homeless.”
A poverty rate of 12.5%, which existed prior to the recession, is nothing to dismiss out of hand, either. And there are so many questions for those who need the most help. Does the poverty come first or the mental illness? Does the mental illness precede the self-medication with drugs and alcohol or is it the other way around? How about the people who manage to wrestle themselves out of poverty by getting a job and staying clean? How about those who can subsist at that level without ever resorting to crutches?
Poverty comes in all flavors — monetary, social, emotional. And it becomes inescapable when those things are compounded. There isn’t a panacea or blanket solution that fits the issue because it doesn’t have any one cause, particularly in the last several years. But I do think that we’ve been given an opportunity to refresh the dialogue about poverty. It is no longer “us and them.” It is no longer “this can’t happen to me.” It’s our neighbors, our friends, our parents. It could be you. It could be me. It could be all of us on the bus with our paper bags.
And now is the time to change the conversation — shift our own perceptions about poverty. Is it possible to stop pushing the shame under the table? So many more of us understand what it’s like to be stretched thin, to watch our safety nets dissolve. So many more of us know that a cold dread we couldn’t understood four years ago. So no, handing someone a fiver won’t pull them out of poverty. But maybe we can invest instead in the improvement of our own perceptions. We can allow one another to maintain dignity. We can limit our assumptions. We can give each other respect, free to give and free to receive.