Who is Worth Saving?

12.10.13

The New York Times profiled an 11 year old homeless girl Dasani. Dasani is different. She’s smart and fast and she’s the de facto caretaker of her seven younger siblings. She lives in s shelter with her parents and siblings where they play host to vermin, roaches and mold. Indoor plumbing is iffy, Dasani’s mother Chanel is unpredictable and her biological father absent.

Maybe Dasani isn’t so remarkable? It’s clear that Andrea Elliot has fallen for the slight 11 year old child and her obvious love for her becomes it’s own character in the series. How could anyone not root for this child to overcome a very difficult childhood? How many Dasanis live in New York City? How many Dasanis are in Los Angeles?

Does living below the poverty line imbue children with strengths that would otherwise never develop?

If one can set aside some time to read the five part series on just one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless children it’s impossible to not want to do something. How can eight children live in third world filth two blocks away from $1.5 million apartments and $700 bottles of wine? How can we as a nation pity the poor children of emerging nations while tossing expired formula at our own? How do we fix this? How did we allow this to happen?

Great societies are measured by how they treat their poor, their children, their elderly and infirm. I’m not sure how we’d currently measure America. We try but we’re massive and the cracks that people can slip through sometimes seem like the Grand Canyon.

In the New York Post this week we met an attorney. He’s not a very good attorney. John Scarpa was defending Rasheen Everett who choked to death a trans woman he met on Craigslist. Unfortunately for Everett, Scarpa called Everett’s first wife to the stand where she testified that she and Everett split up after he strangled her. Just a few days later The Post reported:

“A sentence of 25 years to life is an incredibly long period of time judge,” John Scarpa said Thursday as he asked a judge to go easy on his client, Rasheen Everett, for killing hooker Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar in 2010.

“Shouldn’t that be reserved for people who are guilty of killing certain classes of individuals?”

Then, taking callousness to a new level, he said: “Who is the victim in this case? Is the victim a person in the higher end of the community?”

And because there are good people in the world (with neither Everett nor Scarpa being included among them) Everett was sentenced to 29 years in prison and the judge had tough words for Scarpa reminding him that we value every human life.

In reading headlines I wonder if we do. I know that we want to intervene and bring the Dasanis of the world out of poverty but I wonder if anyone wanted to save Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar from a life of prostitution and risk.

What if Andrea Elliot had profiled another child. Maybe one with fetal alcohol syndrome or ADD and crooked teeth? What if shelter kids are just average? How do we decide who is worth profiling or saving? Who tugs at our hearts and why are they required to tug? Is it enough to just exist? Will that ever be enough to make us want to care for people or do we need to save the exceptional people first?

What if the New York Times profiled an ugly child with a terrible story and even worse skin? Would we be abuzz and horrified and demanding that the system change or would we just look away? No one’s freaking out that a transgender prostitute was murdered. In fact you’re probably calling her a him and noting that hooking up on Craigslist is risky behavior. It’s okay to admit it to yourself, you don’t have to say it out loud but you do have to acknowledge what we’ve become.

I mean, we basically look away right now. Maybe it’s just more of the same?

A Homeless Man Died at the Kid’s School Today

11.12.10

I got an email today from our new head of school. It read in part:

At approximately 9:15 this morning, the body of a 39-year-old homeless male was discovered adjacent to the main parking lot between the south wall of the school and the bushes. The police and coroner came and went without incident. The children are unaware of what occurred, other than some noticed the police cruiser parked in the lot.

Jane was aware. In sixth grade they are becoming aware of everything. Alexander hadn’t noticed that his school was locked down. Same school, same event, two very different kids.

So when I picked the kids up from school this afternoon I was trying to prepare myself for the questions they would have. The kids hopped in the car just after three o’clock and I asked them how the day was.

Alexander had a great day, but Jane said that they were in “lockdown because of a hobo problem”. I gently corrected her, “It was a homeless man, and he died.”

“He did die? See the girls said he died and that they saw the dead doctor [coroner?] at school, but I didn’t believe them, and the boys said that it was probably a fight, and the security guard didn’t tell us anything.” As is customary she said it all in one big breath.

“Wait, what do you mean he died?” Alexander interrupted.

“I’m not sure about the details honey, but this morning a man died near the school. It’s very sad whenever someone dies.” I said.

“Who was he?” They both asked.

“I don’t know” Was my reply.

“Why did he die?” Someone asked. I was white knuckle, driving, hoping they wouldn’t ask me any difficult questions.

“I don’t know.” Was my next honest reply.

“Do you think he was murdered?” Alexander asked.

“Possibly,” I said, “though I hope not.”

“Where will he be buried?” Jane asked.

“I don’t know. If you’re homeless sometimes people don’t really know your name, so I think the city just does their best. Do you have any other questions?” I asked the kids.

“How old was he?” Alexander asked.

I blinked back tears, “thirty nine.” That’s one year younger than I. That’s just not long enough for anyone to live.

I pulled the car over.

And we talked about what a corner does. We talked about food pantries, and how important it is for us to buy good quality food for the pantry each week so people don’t have to decide between food and rent, and maybe they won’t have to be homeless. The kids recognized that he died because of homelessness.

And we talked about how homeless people are just like us, except that even if, even if, and even if a thousand different scenarios happened Jane and Alexander would have a home. A real home. And then I silently thanked G-d because I wasn’t lying to my kids, because with a thousand different bad luck scenarios taking place, my family would always be there. All my kids wanted to know was that they were safe. I could tell them they were. Honestly.

And then we all cried a little. Because Los Angeles is too rich to have people dying on the street.

Buy the book.

This Is Mommy Blogging

04.26.10

As a woman was attacked by a man with a knife Alfredo Tale-Yax intervened. He was stabbed several times in the chest and collapsed on a New York City street.

One man stopped to take a picture of Tale-Yax with his camera phone, dozens of people walked by, but no one helped.

Alfredo Tale-Yax died at 31, homeless in New York City. Get mad.

I Lectured Him A Little

12.24.09

We used to go to downtown with my dad when we were little. The cement benches were host to sleeping homeless men (I don’t recall seeing homeless women in my youth). The homeless men of my youth were Vietnam Veterans and drunks, almost without fail.

I don’t remember how the discussions begun, but they always ended the same way. My father would say to me, “That man was someone’s baby. Someone rocked and kissed him when he was a baby, and someone still loves him.” I was never taught to be afraid of homeless people, nor to pity them too much. I was weaned on a steady diet of compassion. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the work that Mark Hovarth and Matthew Barnett do. It’s like they set the table for dinner and invite people to join, they give folks an opportunity to work things out.

Today when I went to CVS there was a man out front holding a pack of cigarettes. He was in his 20’s tall and unremarkable, except that he needed a shave. He asked me if I smoked. “Nah,” I chuckled, because he was just so hustle-y (shaddup it’s a word!). He continued, “Well, would you mind giving me some change for food?”

It took me a moment, and then I realized that he was standing in front of a drugstore, selling single cigarettes at a markup in order to raise money, and that he was probably homeless. I only had big bills so I told him I’d get him on the way out.

I spent a hundred dollars on something, odds and ends that our house needed. On the way out I stopped to give him two dollars (I’m a sucker during the holidays), and I took a closer look. He was a young, articulate man, broad shouldered and appeared quite sober.

“You’re too smart for this.” I said.

“I know.” He replied. “I’m going to get a job, next week. I promise.”

“You don’t have to promise me, if you’re smart enough to make money selling cigarettes people could buy 10 steps away, then you’re smart enough to work. Do you have a home?”

“I’m staying in my car right now.” He put his hand on my shoulder and I saw that his knuckles were scarred. He wasn’t clean, but I let him make the connection. I think we both needed it.

We talked a little more, I told him that the Dream Center might have some resources for him. He told me that he had dreams.

And then I gave him ten dollars. Because he told me that he was a good guy, and I believed him. And if he wasn’t? Well, he was a good enough salesman to have earned it.

It probably wasn’t the right thing to do. It’s just what I did.

Exploring Social Media: Viper

09.29.09

I don’t have a name for what is happening here online, I do know that strangers are coming together to form friendships and within the bounds of these friendships, actions are taken. I met Melissa once in Chicago and it was like finding your friend you’d been searching the world for. I didn’t need more of her than just those moments, nor she I. Melissa was recently in town for a taping of Dr. Phil so the kids and I met her for a quick dinner at Hollywood and Highland.

In keeping with it being Hollywood, I met Bob Saget on my way to Melissa and later we were both greeted by a delinquent smoking a joint in the hallway of the Raddsion. I had the children avert their eyes, “clove cigarettes” we explained to them.

We had dinner and took a brief walk on Hollywood Boulevard. “Oh my gosh Melissa, I know her.” I grasped Melissa’s forearm. She looked at me and I continued, “Melissa, I know her from Mark Hovarth’s videos. I know about her dog and her catheter, and her need to see her family. I know her three wishes.”

Standing on Hollywood Boulvard, buying my children toys they don’t need (and may or may not want) I grabbed my friend’s sleeve and whisper again, “I know her.”

But I don’t do anything, because just as quickly as she appeared, she disappears again. My middle class guilt has me gasping for breath.

Mark made Viper visible.