A few weeks back, I was walking in the park, delivering lunches, when one of the homeless women there asked a young man if he wanted a lunch. The young man said yes, and he came over and got one. We smiled at each other, and then the woman and I kept walking.
“Paul* is autistic, you know,” she said. “He won’t ask you for anything, but if you go up to him, he’ll respond to you.”
“He’s autistic?” I said. “Homeless and autistic? That’s got to be rough. He’s especially vulnerable out here.”
“I know,” she said. “That’s why we watch out for him.”
It was such a simple exchange, and yet it broke down every stereotype about homeless people out there — that they’re all lazy bums, that they’re all criminals, that they’re all dangerous, and that none of them are fit to be in community with the rest of us. I have not found the average homeless person to be lazy, criminal, or dangerous; in fact, I have met a number of kind, caring, and thoughtful people. I’ve had conversations about politics, religion, disability, and art, and I’ve seen more than one example of people looking out for one another.
It always takes my breath away when people in crisis look out for one another. It reminds me of the goodness of people, and how we can care for one another, even in dire circumstances. I wish we did more of it. The world would be a kinder and more life-affirming place.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Today I was talking to a friend who lives on disability and has been homeless for several months. He told me a story that simultaneously made me angry and broke my heart.
The other day, while he was standing on the street, he saw something that delighted him, and he wanted to get a picture of it. He was getting ready to use his smartphone to take the photo when a couple of women started talking in very loud voices about how he should not have a smartphone.
“That man is begging and he has a $400 smartphone? How dare he! That’s just wrong. He shouldn’t have anything like that!” And on and on.
In point of fact, he got the phone for $70. But really, who cares what it cost? It doesn’t matter, because in the eyes of some people, poor folks should be completely destitute before they deserve anything. And even if they were completely destitute, you know that these very same self-righteous good citizens would still do nothing to help. If my friend were on the street with nothing but the clothes on his back, they’d spit at him and call him a lazy bum because being poor is, in their eyes, some sort of moral and social crime.
I am a very shy person when it comes to initiating social interactions. But if I’d been standing there while these women started in on this subject, you could not have shut me up. I’d have told them where to shove it and invited them to take their privileged asses down the road.
This is the mentality that keeps people on the street. You want homeless folks to get housing and jobs? How are they supposed to do that without a phone, without decent clothing, without food, without shelter, without all of the things that they need?
People and their petty cruelties just break my heart sometimes. My friend is a kind and decent person in a terrible situation who just wanted to take a photo of something that made him happy. And random people passing on the road — people who have never spoken to him, people who have never given him anything, people who have all the food and shelter they could ever need — couldn’t even let him have a happy moment. They had to open their mouths. They had to say something. They had to fuck it up. They couldn’t have a moment of consideration for someone else and just keep their damned mouths shut.
There is so much suffering out there, and the systemic problems are so huge. When people try to find some measure of happiness in the midst of it all, why try to take that from them?
I despair of humanity at times. These cruel, petty microaggressions just tear me up. And then I look at my friend, who has more decency and kindness than almost anyone I’ve ever met. People like him keep me going when I think that the world is beyond redemption.
I hope I help to keep him going, too.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. — Clarissa Pinkola Estes, We Were Made for These Times
[This photograph shows a kitchen cabinet containing ingredients for lunches -- loaves of bread, jars of peanut butter and jelly, and boxes of cookies -- along with boxes of sandwich bags and paper bags.]
Now that the weather is getting colder, I am really concerned about the danger of people dying of exposure. Four people just north of here, in Santa Clara County, have died of exposure in the past few weeks. While Santa Cruz usually has a temperate climate, it’s been below freezing at night. A few weeks back, I had my husband send me all of the hats, scarves, and mittens I made when we lived in Vermont, and I gave them away to people on the street. I also made a hat and scarf for a friend who has been homeless for several months. I can’t stand the idea of people being cold overnight.
I have a winter coat that I brought with me from Vermont. I’m going to give away. I had been saving it, thinking that if I visit the snow sometime, I’m going to need it. But why keep it stored in my closet for another day when people are cold right now? If I need a winter jacket, I can always get one. I do not need to worry about things like that. So I’m keeping my eye out for other jackets that I can pick up in thrift stores and give to people who need them.
So there is much to do — and much that troubles me. One of the most troubling things is the way in which people respond to what I do. First, there are the people walking through the park who have homes. They sometimes see me distributing food and take a moment to say something like, “Oh, wow. You’re handing out food? That is so nice of you.” While I always appreciate a compliment, I find myself getting impatient with that particular one. I don’t need people to tell me what a great thing I’m doing, for the simple reason that I don’t think I’m doing a great thing. I think I’m doing the right thing, as any human being should do, and I would like more people to get involved.
And then there are the responses from people on the street. It’s the gratitude that calls me up short. The gratitude — for a sandwich, a piece of fruit, some cookies, and a kind word — resonates with all that is wrong about the situation. People say things like “You’re an angel” and “You’re just so wonderful,” and “God bless you for doing this.”
These responses are genuine, and I take them in with appreciation. I say things like, “It’s my pleasure” and “God bless you, too.” But it breaks me apart inside to realize that people are seeing God in a peanut butter sandwich — and that people are so disrespected, spat upon, fearful, and loathed that any kindness is like manna falling from heaven.
It just about guts me, because I’m not doing charity here. I’m doing justice. It’s wrong that people are hungry. It’s wrong that people are sleeping outside in freezing weather. It’s wrong that people have no refuge. It’s wrong that people are so disrespected that they feel that they don’t matter. It’s all so wrong. So, so, so wrong.
As much as I love what I do, I am also feeling stymied by the lack of any discussion about how to get people out of homelessness. At least in my city, any and all official discussions of homelessness center around crime. It illegal to sleep outside between 11 pm and 8:30 am, and people are routinely woken up, given tickets, and told to move along — to where, exactly? And with what money are they going to pay those tickets? And then if they try to sleep outside during the day, they’re not supposed to have a blanket on top of them. They can’t be on a bench for more than an hour. It goes on and on.
Now, according to one of my friends, they’re talking about throwing people in jail after three tickets — as though jail were some sort of “deterrent” for the “crime” of being poor. There is no talk of creating affordable housing for low-income people. There is no talk of creating accessible housing for the staggering number of disabled people on the street. There is no talk of creating accessible work places so that disabled people can support themselves. And there is no talk of how to create independent living support for people who need assistance staying housed.
There is no conversation about long-term solutions. There is no conversation that even begins to approach the roots of the problem. There is no conversation that speaks to the injustice of forcing people to live outdoors in below-freezing weather.
This is an old story, of course. It’s always been a crime to be poor and have no choices.
I would like to be involved in work to deal with the systemic problems that underlie homelessness, but I don’t even know where to begin. At this point, I feel that all I can do is to engage in palliative measures. There is nothing wrong with palliative measures, of course. God knows, when people are suffering, they can’t just wait until the injustices are fixed. That could take generations. They need whatever support and comfort I can give, and I have the resources to make that available. I have the resources to buy food for lunches. I have the time to make them. I have the power to do a great deal. I am not discounting the importance of any of that.
But given that virtually all of the long-term homeless population is disabled, I wonder why disability rights organizations are not getting involved here on the systemic issues. This is ground-level work. And yet, even if there were discussions going on about how to address the underlying issues, and even if there were political action taking place, I know that most of it would be inaccessible to a person with my disabilities.
I sometimes find myself falling into “overcoming” mode — the feeling that if I just pushed myself a little further, I could show up in noisy spaces that overload me, or do without captioning, or talk to people whose speech is so fast that blows right past my auditory delays, or end up exhausted for days — for the sake of discussion and political action. I keep hearing that internalized ableist voice saying, “You’re not doing enough. You need to be doing activism the way that other people do it.” I keep thinking that if those discussions were happening, and if those political actions were happening, I’d just have to suck it up and pay no attention whatsoever to how my body actually works.
I need to be careful of that voice. At the moment, I am creating my own accessibility and my own activism, and until the world opens up in terms of access, that will be how it will remain. I want to work on systemic issues, but to do that, I would likely have to spend an inordinate amount of time fighting for access. I’d rather not. I’d rather channel all of that energy into the work itself.
So I’ll continue to do my best by people, and to keep my eyes open for all kinds of opportunities to further be of service. That’s the best I can do in the world as it’s presently constructed. And for the people I serve, even a small act of kindness is writ large in their lives. So I go forward with the faith that no moment of channeling the larger love is wasted, and that all will come to fruition if we continue to do right.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
I have been feeling a lot of sadness these days. It’s almost a sad kind of wonder. I look back over my life from my perch here in my 50s, and I think about how differently my life has turned out from what others had planned for me — and from what I had planned for myself.
Part of what has sparked this nostalgia has been reconnecting with an old friend from high school. I find myself traveling back to when we last saw each other. We were 18. It’s been over 35 years — a whole lifetime. And I wonder at how young we were, how unformed we were, how we were barely out of childhood, and how we have aged and weathered so many things in the interim.
But mainly, I think about the difference between who I am now and who I was then. In some ways, I am still that innocent kid, with the Mensa-level IQ, and the acceptance letters from Ivy League schools, and the faith that my intelligence and my good heart would open doors and make my life the privileged haven everyone told me it would be.
Because yes, I grew up very privileged. White and solidly middle-class, I had the best of everything: the best schools, the best arts programs, the best neighborhood, and the best and highest of expectations. Home was a nightmare, but it was a nightmare that I knew would one day be over. I was not trapped in it. I had choices. I had a plan. I had an escape.
But I didn’t have as many choices as I thought I did. I didn’t use the word “disabled” back then, but even in high school, I knew that people could do things that I couldn’t do — and I knew that I understood things they could not see. I didn’t know how to define it. I didn’t understand all the neurological glitches and processing difficulties and unfiltered perception that made my life so much more work than I was perceiving in other people. But even in high school, I knew that my life would not be what I had planned, nor what my parents were planning. I knew there were worlds I could not navigate and had no interest in navigating. I knew that I was going in a different direction. I cried all the time.
Realizing that I have multiple disabilities here in the middle of my life has really been about a loss of privilege. I’ve been angry about it, and I’ve grieved it, but mainly, I think about how incredibly privileged I am to be grieving the loss of privilege. What does it say that I have had to adjust to what most people deal with in utero? I have railed against the loss of privilege with all manner of words that come down to Why Me? I only started moving on with my life when I could answer with Oh, for God’s sake. Why Not Me?
I still have so much privilege. I live in a great apartment in a secure building. I don’t worry about food or clothing or medicine. I have my husband with me and my kid less than a mile away.
And yet… What is it about being disabled that always brings up the words and yet?
Part of it is a lack of access. I was abundantly fortunate to have had a very good career for fifteen years. And then I left it to raise my kid, and by the time I was done, my disabilities were in full bloom, the time for passing had long since passed, and I could not find an accessible environment in which to work. I miss that. I miss the daily collaboration of work. I miss the routine. I miss the projects and the work friendships and the busyness of it. I miss the old identity. I miss the social respect.
But it isn’t just about access. Not exactly. It’s more a sense that the world wants something I can’t give it, no matter how hard I’ve tried. It’s not enough that I’m smart and good-hearted and hard working. The world wants me to be normal. That is the baseline. That is the condition under which everything else takes place. And I simply can’t do it. I never could do it. I tried very hard. And for awhile, I was able to compensate. But I’m not interested in compensating anymore. I’m interested in living comfortably in my body. That just isn’t possible when you’re compensating all the time.
So that kid, who thinks that her brilliance and lovingkindness are going to be just the ticket, is still very much a part of me. She’s still looking around, wondering why it doesn’t quite work that way. But there is also the adult, who knows that the gig was up a long time ago, and that it doesn’t matter how many of the trappings of normalcy I’ve acquired. I’m not normal. I will never be normal. I don’t ever want to be normal. Why would I want to aspire to a statistical construct created by 19th century eugenicists? Does that sound like a fun way to live?
I have so much to offer the world. And yet, I can’t give it what it wants more than anything: normalcy. So I seek out people who don’t care about normalcy. I serve people who don’t care about normalcy. I serve people in the park who are hungry and homeless — many of whom are disabled, and all of whom are way further to the right of the bell curve on non-normalcy than I am. I think that is one of the many things I love about what I do three days a week: I distribute lunch to people who don’t expect me to be normal, who aren’t judging how far I fall from it, and who really couldn’t care less whether I fulfill the ridiculous expectations of some fictional idea.
So, oddly enough, and despite the undeniable privilege I still enjoy, I have found a source of connection among the most dispossessed people in my community. I work to make my privilege work for them. I do my best to take my privilege and wield it for the sake of people who are about as far from privilege as one can get. Right now, that’s the best I can do.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
As I go out and distribute food to people living in the park, I see and hear things that nearly break me apart. Here’s what I’ve seen and heard over the past week. This is how our fellow human beings are living.
An elderly amputee stops me to talk about shooting squirrels for food.
A vet in his 60s tells me that a blind man is losing weight and coughing up blood. The man moans all night. He is dying. Outside. Alone.
Two men sitting on a bench tell me that they have had nothing but water for two days.
Two women are lying on a blanket together, comforting each other. One has a black eye.
A squad car arrives in the meadow where homeless people congregate and sleep during the day. A police officer and two park rangers are telling a group of people to move on. The group consists of men and women of all ages, including an elderly woman. They might have been drinking or smoking, which are forbidden in the park. The park rangers are often checking to see what is going on in the meadow.
People in the group are screaming at the police officer and the rangers. Some are gathering their possessions and dragging them away. On the pedestrian bridge above, people with food and clothing and shelter are staring at and mocking the homeless folks being dispersed below.
I maintain very clear boundaries when I am in the park. If I see the police or the park rangers talking to people, I hang back. They have a job to do and I give them space to do it. Before I go over to people and offer food, I observe them very carefully. If I sense anything awry, I move on. If people scream at me, I don’t get into it. If other people scream at them, I just observe and continue on.
My job is to offer food, kindness, respect, and courtesy to people who are hungry and homeless. I see so much now that I never saw before. Most people don’t see it. I didn’t see it. Now I can’t unsee it. I don’t want to unsee it, ever.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
It’s become something of a truism — in both social justice circles and the larger society — to say that politeness is outmoded. In fact, many people view politeness as a tool of oppression, as though it has no utility except to shame people angry at their oppression into compliance: You need to be more polite, the privileged say. Otherwise, I won’t listen to you.
I have experienced this tactic. To me, this is an absolute misuse of the very notion of politeness. It should never be used as a way to shut people up. To the contrary: politeness, when used properly, enables people to feel safe enough to speak.
Of course, politeness has its limits. If someone physically attacks me, I’m not going to be polite while fighting for my life. If someone attempts to derail an argument by telling me that I need to be more polite — and has no interest in hearing me out no matter how well-spoken I am — I can be blunt about calling that out. There are many times and places in which being polite is out of the question. And because of those times and places, politeness has gotten a bad name.
I was raised in an era in which social forms were far more important than they are now. Our parents and teachers drilled into us the need to say please, thank you, and you’re welcome; to say excuse me if you had to pass in front of someone; to hold the door for the next person. But for us, it wasn’t an empty social form or an expression of deference. To the contrary: it was a sign of respect.
Although I can be very, very blunt, I can also be polite to a fault. I am amazed at the ways in which all those long-ago lessons live in me — the ways in which I instinctively go to them as I walk through my life. Politeness still lives in my bones, no matter how blunt I may otherwise be.
I have been calling upon politeness early and often these days as I distribute bag lunches to people living in the park, many of whom are disabled. Because they experience so little politeness at the hands of other people, I find it very, very important to exercise politeness when talking with people who have no homes. These people, whether disabled or not, are ignored, spat on, told to get a job, and chased out of public spaces. So when I talk to people, I am unfailingly courteous.
When I approach people who are sleeping, I take care to not wake them up. A lot of people can’t sleep during the night — because sleeping outdoors is illegal at night in Santa Cruz — so they sleep during the day. If I see people sleeping, I’ll walk up to them very softly and leave a bag of food at their feet, or behind them, or on top of their carts. But occasionally, my presence startles people and they wake up. One person became quite hostile. My response is always polite: I’m sorry that I disturbed your rest. I’ll just leave your lunch here for you.
If a person is awake, I will say May I offer you some food? If I have to step over a person’s camp in order to reach that person, I will ask whether it is all right for me to step on a blanket or a tarp.
If someone says thank you to me, I always say, you’re very welcome.
To my mind, this is no empty social form. To the contrary, it is a form of social justice. I am making right a wrong. I am overturning the cultural imperative to look down on disabled people, to look down on people living in poverty, to see them as unworthy of basic human decency. I am letting people know that they deserve my courtesy and my respect.
And people are almost always polite to me in return. It is rare that a person doesn’t treat me with courtesy. Very, very rare. People introduce themselves and ask my name. They ask after how I’m doing. They offer to help distribute food to their friends. They say God bless. I see less and less of this kind of courtesy among people with a great deal more. I find it reassuring wherever I meet it.
Kindness flows through these social forms. Far from being an exercise in compliance and silencing, they are an experience of connection and being seen.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
“Nearly all of the long-term homeless have tenuous family ties and some kind of disability, whether it is a drug or alcohol addiction, a mental illness, or a physical handicap.” — Dennis Culhane, 2010
I spend a fair amount of time these days talking with people who live on the street. I distribute bag lunches three times a week in San Lorenzo Park and on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. I stop and chat with people, and I listen to their stories. P
eople are getting to know me now, and they say hello to me at the drugstore and at the bus station and on the street. Some of them I consider friends; others are just folks I exchange a few words with; still others say very little at all.
The number of disabled people living on the street in Santa Cruz is staggering. Most of the people I talk to are disabled. Either I see their disabilities at first glance or I hear about them when people talk about their lives. The most obvious are the people with visible disabilities: people who use wheelchairs but can only move them by shuffling their feet, people who need wheelchairs but can’t afford them, people who use walkers and push chairs on which all of their belongings are piled, people who are blind but have no cane and no guide dog. Then there are the people who are mentally ill: the ones who talk to the voices they hear, the vets with PTSD, the men and women laboring under severe depression. And then there are the ones with invisible disabilities: the middle-aged man who stims and rocks and self-talks at the bus stop, the older fellow with leg and back injuries, the young man who understands everything but has trouble speaking in words. And of course, there are the alcoholics and the drug addicts, including the ones who line up at the methadone clinic.
When we talk about homelessness, we don’t often talk about the sheer numbers of disabled people living without shelter. And when we talk about disability, we don’t often talk about how many disabled people end up on the street. We don’t talk enough about the ways in which disability puts people at risk of homelessness and about the ways in which homelessness puts people at risk of disability. But think about the level of physical vulnerability involved — the lack of medical care, the lack of decent food, the sexual and physical assaults, the constant vigilance — and it’s not difficult to see how people become disabled on the street. If you didn’t have PTSD before homelessness, you’ll probably have it once you’ve become homeless. If you didn’t have an alcohol problem before you became homeless, you might acquire one just to be able to sleep. If you weren’t physically disabled before you became homeless, you might become so through assault or untended injury. And if you weren’t ill before you became homeless, you might easily become so through chronic lack of sleep.
In Santa Cruz, it is illegal to sleep outdoors between 11 pm and 8:30 am, and in the library at any time. How are people supposed to find their way out of homelessness if they can’t even sleep? It boggles the mind.
And how can anyone can say that all people need to do is to quit being so lazy and get a job? Fine. You want people to quit sleeping outdoors? Find people a job that accommodates their disabilities. Locate accessible housing. Get people the assistive devices they need. Help people hire a support staff. I’m sure that any one of the people I’ve spoken to would be only too happy to sign right up.
The need out there is so great. Our disabled brothers and sisters are crying out for justice.
Culhane, Dennis. “Five Myths About America’s Homeless.” The Washington Post, July 11, 2010. Accessed September 12, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070902357.html.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg