Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

Learning Our Names to Fight Poverty

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S and I were driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in LA, Sheryl Crow’s voice bouncing around in my head. When we got to the park overlooking the Pacific, I saw the most gorgeous landscape and the saddest sight – the park was full of homeless people.  It was painful.

So I chose to find a way around my pain. I chose to be judgmental.  “How can these people not get a job? Anyone can work at a fast food restaurant, right?” I said.

S breathed deep and then calmly said, “It’s really hard to get a job when you don’t have an address.”

Smack. There it was. My own ignorance about homelessness. It had never occurred to me that I always had an address to put on application forms. Many of these people did not.

***

A few years later, I was on my nightly commute from Stanford to San Francisco, stuck at the light that let me back into the city.  There, on the median, was a man. He reminded me of Jeff Foxworthy – reddish hair, full beard, flannel shirt.  He held a sign – “Please help me feed my family.”

I almost got jaded, but I had seen this man every day for several weeks at the same spot, in the same clothes.  So when the light got me closer, I rolled down my window. “What’s your name?”

I can’t remember what he told me his name was, but I do remember this.  He was homeless and begging on the street because he had a wife and two children to feed. They had lost their house in a fire and couldn’t afford to rebuild – their homeowner’s insurance didn’t pay for some reason. He had lost his job. They were stuck.

I realized there, in my idling Honda, that I was one, maybe two, disasters away from homelessness myself.

***

It is easy for me to get callous. It was especially easy in San Francisco, the city with one of the largest homeless populations in the country, because I saw homeless people every day.  It broke my heart a little every time, and so sometimes, I would just get stiff and avert my eyes, as if me not seeing made them disappear.

I was cold and selfish. I was human.

I did some things to help – left my leftovers on the top of trash cans so that people could eat them later, argued that the tourism board’s campaign against giving to the homeless was dehumanizing and cruel. I feel good about these things.

But they are not enough. I need to do better. I need to talk to these people, to know (and remember) their names and have them know mine. I need to connect with those I so often want to ignore. I need to risk my own pain so that I can know theirs because mine, at least in this way, cannot compare.

***

Later this morning, I am going to help put together Thanksgiving meals for people who come to our local food pantry. I am so excited to be a part of this task – my first real act as a member of the Lovingston community.  But this is a small thing, and here I will not meet the people we are serving.

So I must do more.  I will find a way.

Today, I am asking you to pray, talk, and share your stories about poverty, homelessness, and how we help.  We can come together as a community – the richest and the poorest, the strongest and the weakest – recognizing that we may have our definitions of these terms all wrong. We can work together to end poverty.  This, this is something I want to be a part of, and this is what I think our primary mission at God’s Whisper Farm will be.

It is not an easy task. We aren’t going to throw money at this problem and suddenly find equity in our society. No, this is arduous, complex, and confusing – but it is doable. I feel it in my bones.

Will you join me by sharing your stories today? By praying for my wisdom as I find a way to work here in Lovingston and in communities around the world? Will you give me your hand and work with me as we grasp hands with the poor people of our world?

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Author: Andi

I'm a writer, teacher, and editor who is currently working on a book about the slaves who lived and worked on the farm where I now live. I blog daily at http://www.andilit.com I have three cats - Oscar, Emily and Charlotte - who have taken to living on the farm quite well - bird-, frog-, and butterfly-hunters all.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this! Today I will work with volunteers who will help pack grocery bags for families here in the Twin Cities at the Mission where I work. On Monday & Tuesday we will distribute bags to the 9,000 families who register for help this year! Volunteering is easy and a great way to help others in need.

    (My blog post this week is about this and there is a video on how just 1 hot meal can start to build hope back in someone’s life.)
    Linda recently posted…No One Should Go HungryMy Profile

  2. My husband recently graduated from seminary. When he started four years ago, we decided I would stay home with our then-five-month-old daughter. We applied for state-funded insurance (Medicaid) and when we didn’t get anywhere with that application, I applied for food stamps, sort of accidentally. Surprisingly to me, we qualified, which started a journey for us that was sometimes embarrassing and always humbling. When our son was born a little over a year later, we received WIC benefits and insurance to pay for doctor’s appointments and the birth. It was all VERY VERY humbling and eye-opening. We suddenly realized what it was to be poor (an Americanized version of poverty, anyway, which is real but is not the same as global poverty by any means) and how difficult it is to live that way day after day. People judge what’s in your cart at the store. They sigh loudly when your WIC checks cause alarms to go off at the register, even if it’s not your fault but a computer error. They ask your kids, do you have a daddy? at the checkout when you’re shopping with them alone. Every day we were on food stamps, I couldn’t wait to be off because of the kinds of stereotypes and judgements people level at those on welfare. They would excuse our family, of course, from those stereotypes because they “knew” we weren’t abusing the system. Now, we have too many “assets” to be on food stamps even though my husband has a job that barely pays the bill, and we are learning what it is to live on daily bread. To trust God to provide for us. It is a grand adventure that has made me appreciate what I have and the struggles of people living in poverty. Thanks for addressing this issue!

    • Lisa, thank you for your honesty. I know some of where you are personally, and I know many people who share your experience. I’m so sorry that we so often equate lack of money with lack of effort or good citizenship or good choices. I’m sorry you and your family have had to bear that insensitivity and judgment. I am so grateful to know our God has got us, all the time. Thank you for reading.

  3. When I was in college in Knoxville my roommate and I became friends with a homeless man named Vernon. He was wonderful. We’d go on grocery store runs and things to help him meet his basic needs, but we also learned the reason he was staying on the streets in Knoxville (not the best city for anything, much less homelessness). Years prior, his wife and son had left him, and he knew that if his son ever wanted to try and find him and mend their relationship, the only place he’d know to look was Knoxville. So he was staying put.

    Talk about heartbreaking and humbling.

  4. Wonderful, powerful words. They take me back to my years of taking bag lunches to the homeless in Long Beach, CA. I’m proud to be part of a community who strives to reach out to those who have less, physically and spiritually.

  5. In rural Western Massachusetts there is a model that I like a lot. A center was established by volunteers in an unused space. There is very limited paid staff, several community volunteers and a very large volunteer population of individuals who are served.

    There is dignity and respect in both serving and being served. Daily hot lunches are prepared from whatever food is available from donations. The cook is quite talented and creative–she has to be. The kitchen helpers are volunteers. A pickup truck goes out each morning to gather the donated food items–both raw ingredients and prepared foods–from chain restaurants, grocery stores and local farmers. The cook gets first choice of the items to prepare that day or put aside for the next day. After that the donated items are sorted by yet another group of volunteers in preparing for gifting to those who have come for assistance.

    Tables and chairs are set up. Buffet lines are created and when it’s ready the community meal is served. Likewise, clean up is a joint effort. Children, families, individuals….they come to know each other and their stories.

    There is a “free store” where clothing, household items, toys, etc which have been donated have been sorted by volunteers and are available for taking as needed.

    The community supports this work through financial donations, fundraisers, time, grant writing and responding to needs made public.

    Two retired doctors started free healthcare clinics at the center. Eventually a social worker was added, Salvation Army is on site regularly to assist with medication needs. The services are being built based on need and community resources.

    This sounds like a large space–not so, it has been a basement setting, the tables and chairs must be taken down after each meal to enable other programs to be held. They have family movie nights, holiday special meals and events. And now there are musical concerts by local artists at lunch or special dinner/event concerts.

    There’s so much more that I haven’t described. Folks are respected for who they are and their story. There are those who prefer to live in the woods. When winter approaches calls go out for blankets, sleeping bags, tents, tarps and other necessities of outdoor living. It’s not something looked down upon–it’s what works for them and it is supported. Hot showers, warm clothing, etc. all make it possible.

    The best part, in my opinion, is that those who are served likewise serve, with dignity. They help each other….they are a community, within the community.

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