When confronted with homelessness, it's much too easy to look the other way.
Image from Flickr via peter.howe
By Marissa Landrigan
The stench of fish guts has sunk into the wood of the Ventura Pier, its wide thick planks sticky and wet with blood, and with the ocean. The salt-water spray embeds a dank, faint rot in the meat of the wood. Late in my California summer, I sat on the pier and watched days pass. The stink of fish was everywhere.
Some, I saw, fish for fun. White and Chicano families gather around a pole or two, a red plastic cooler full of longnecks and juice boxes, a portable stereo hissing a weak connection from the mainland, a picnic of bologna and cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly on white bread, baggies of grapes. The fathers wrap their arms around children, guiding the line down into the sea. They throw fish bodies onto ice or the plastic cutting boards nailed to some of the pier’s benches. They laugh.
Some fish without laughing. These are the men—almost always men—I would see sitting cross-legged on sidewalks outside the Main Street Ben & Jerry’s or curled, sleeping, surrounded by garbage bags beneath the trees in Fir Street Park. These men walk slowly not because they are laden with all their worldly possessions, though they are, but because they have nowhere to be. They wear flannels tied around the waist, lead scrappy matted dogs on leashes of rope, push rusty bicycles sagging with the weight of accumulation, with sleeping bags and extra clothes and barely-functioning radios. These men fish off the pier with scrabbled-together equipment, with branches stripped of their foliage. The worms they use don’t come from the tackle stand at Fifth and Laurel but were dug from the ground, or gathered after a storm in discarded Chinese take-out containers.
In the United States, persistent myths reinforce the notion that if you don’t have enough, you have no one but yourself to blame.
The men with their dogs and their bicycles toss the fish, whole, into white plastic buckets, mucked around the edges. At night I could see them in small groups on the beach, gathered like hunched birds around fires in the sand, their fish impaled on sticks, held over open flame.
The homeless are largely an abstraction, lacking the dignity of individual identity, part of a formless group.
Quantifying the number of homeless in a given area is a nearly impossible task. It can only be accomplished with a face-to-face headcount, a method riddled with the potential for error and undercounting. The Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition releases their counts based on an “any given day” scenario, noting that the number probably represents only about 25 percent of the actual homeless population. In 2007, when I lived in California, the number was 1,961. The number increased dramatically between 2007 and 2009, a change largely attributed to the national recession, then dipped slightly in 2011. It now appears to be on the rise again.
There seemed to be more homeless people in Ventura than anywhere else I’d lived. I chalked it up to summer, and living near the ocean, in the crook of California’s coast that stays temperate all year round. Also, the public space in Ventura is shared—the province of those both homeless and not. I spent time in parks and beaches and on the promenade, where the homeless made their makeshift camps. When I lived in the vibrant Adams Morgan district of Washington D.C., by contrast, the homeless lived elsewhere, in rougher neighborhoods where upper-middle-class college graduates doing non-profit work were unlikely to wander.
Over the course of the summer, as I watched the homeless fishing side-by-side with young fathers and children on the pier, I began to wonder whether the availability of food played any role in the congregation of the homeless in this beach city. In addition to the large numbers of homeless people, California Food Policy Advocates estimates that about 47 percent of adults in Ventura County live in food insecure households, where a lack of resources disrupts eating patterns. The homeless came to the ocean for something to eat.
Once, on a street in Ventura, a homeless man asked me to buy his pregnant wife a meal. I might have thought that it was a scam, something you’d say to a 24-year-old girl with a laptop in her arms, wearing flip-flops at noon on a weekday. But this middle-aged balding man in a stained white tank top walked up to me and said, “Excuse me, miss?” He told me he wasn’t going to ask me for money, so I wouldn’t think he’d waste it on booze. He told me they’d just been evicted and that his wife was six months pregnant and having cravings. All she wanted in the world was eggs Benedict from the Busy Bee Diner. I chose to believe him.
But when I walked into the Busy Bee, they didn’t have eggs Benedict on the menu. I panicked. I wasn’t going to tell the man that his wife couldn’t have the one thing she wanted to eat, so I flagged down a waitress and begged. I begged her and she special-ordered two eggs Benedict for me. I paid $14.50 and took them back out to the man, who had pointed to his shirt when I went into the diner and said he’d just wait outside, who started to cry when I said I’d brought one for him, too.
When I was a kid, on family vacations, my parents always took our restaurant leftovers in doggy bags, even when we were staying at a hotel without a refrigerator, or leaving the next morning. We’d find a nearby park, and leave the leftovers still packaged in their non-descript plastic bags on a bench somewhere in plain sight near a trash can. They wanted to teach us nothing should go to waste in a world with so much need.
But many people grow up believing something else. In the United States, persistent myths reinforce the notion that if you don’t have enough, you have no one but yourself to blame. A 2011 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that 71 percent of respondents considered irresponsible behavior to be major cause of homelessness. 62 percent blamed laziness. 91 percent blamed drug or alcohol addiction. When we pass the balding middle-aged men, the women in sweatpants with stringy hair, when we see the stains on their clothes, we make assumptions about addictions or irresponsibility.
The upper and middle classes in this country, those who have never lived close to the edge of homelessness or loved someone who did, believe powerfully in the American Dream. In order to believe that anyone can make themselves successful and wealthy, we must also believe that those who are neither have done something wrong. They must be lazy. Addicted. They must not care enough to help themselves. The notion that anyone without a home or enough food deserves their fate must be very popular for eggs Benedict to bring a man to tears on the sidewalk.
In fact, about 40 percent of those who experience homelessness find their way out in less than six months–and more than 70 percent within two years–the difficulty of this kind of turn-around is evidence of a powerful work ethic.
The explanations for homelessness are often strikingly simple: an unexpected event or series of events for which we are not prepared. Divorce. Job loss. Natural disaster. The debilitating death of someone we loved. Some of these events are impossible to anticipate, and others may strike the particularly vulnerable, those suffering from addiction, an undiagnosed mental illness, or post-traumatic stress disorder; those with a family, already living right up against the poverty line, unable to carry the weight of one more burden.
If we saw the homeless as individuals, we might be forced to see how, with just a little less luck, we might be the ones asking for a handout.
Believing that the homeless have chosen this life, or are at least responsible for it, creates a distance between them and us. It keeps us from having to admit how easy it would be for something to push us over the edge, keeps us from having to admit that, despite the national myth, many of us are living near that edge, just barely getting by.
After I gave the man his eggs, I barely made it around the corner before I had tears all over my face, before I was slumping against the warm brick of a Main Street building. Not because, or not only because, I had looked straight at the face of need. But because even if he had been lying—even if they hadn’t been evicted, or his wife wasn’t pregnant, or he didn’t have a wife, or they were addicts, even if any of those worst-case stereotypes were true—what could he do with eggs Benedict but eat them? Even if he had lied, he had told the lie just so he could have something he really wanted to eat, so he could regain some measure of control over his own life.
Choice is at the heart of the national conversation on homelessness and food insecurity. If we believe that most people made choices that led them to hunger or homelessness, then we have no obligation to help them choose a better life. The scraps they receive are all they deserve.
If we look more closely, we might begin to see something dangerous. We might notice how few decisions or moments led them to homelessness. A few wrong turns. A few dead ends. A few mistakes. If we saw the homeless as individuals, we might be forced to see how, with just a little less luck, we might be the ones asking for a handout. We might be able to see ourselves in the position of the homeless, and that is a terrifying prospect.
The truth is, if that man on the street had asked me for a few bucks, I probably wouldn’t have given it to him–or would have tossed him a handful of change, far less than the money I spent on food. I’ve passed countless shaking cups in the laps of dirty strangers whose eyes I couldn’t meet. In my memory, this was the only time I gave to a homeless person in California. We justify our choice to not give by relying on those old standby myths. I don’t want my money going to booze or drugs. If we give them money, what incentive do they have to get a job?
I bought the man a meal because he asked for something acceptable. It wasn’t until I admitted this to myself that I realized how I had been stripping the homeless of any ability to choose for themselves. Sure, it’s my choice whether I give anything or not, but once I’ve given it, why should I presume to know what he most needed right then?
At the end of the Ventura pier, there is a warning sign about the kinds of fish you can catch there, about which ones are safe for children and pregnant women to eat. Some species are too dangerous, their fatty tissues deposits of high-dose toxic chemicals. The sign, posted by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, advises against eating certain species from certain locations, and recommends that all other fish be carefully skinned before consumption to avoid any risk of contamination. Ventura County ranks fourth in the state of California in its use of toxic agricultural chemicals, in the form of synthetic fertilizers and residual pesticides. During heavy rains, these toxins, known to cause cancer and neurological impairment, are carried into streams and rivers and then into the ocean, eventually making their way into the fish.
The families on the pier live in the world of choice, as I do, with the comfort of safety nets and options. But the man on the street wept–wept–when I bought a meal for him, just a meal, something so many of us have the luxury to take for granted. Perhaps because he had so recently been a part of the comfortable world, the world of enough. The world where, when you reel a fish in, you take the time to examine the body for fungus and decay. In that world, if you find something bad, you throw the fish back, and grab a Fruit Roll-Up from the cooler.
The men with bicycles, I don’t think they ever throw a fish back.
Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in Orion, Diagram, Paper Darts, Flyway, and Prick of the Spindle, and she is a regular nonfiction contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed her food memoir, The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown.