What better way to gear up for a Thursday morning that some good old fashioned talk about homeless people?
I've noticed there are geographically distinct “methods” in a homeless community. This is a completely anecdotal and unscientific (yet still, somehow expert level!) opinion on big city homeless communities, based on my personal experiences. Obviously, the universal constant is the homeless population that suffers from, unfortunately, severe mental illness. These are usually the people who are screaming, yelling or talking nonsensical. This post is not about that. I’m talking about the "functioning" homeless (has this term been coined yet?) – the folks who are asking for money and who do not suffer sever mental illnesses - the population suffering from addiction or a string of terrible job/housing/food luck who find themselves out on the street.
Sacramento homeless tend to be friendly and conversational, and ask you for money based on a future purpose. For example: “Can you spare any change, I’m trying to get a hotel for the night”; “Do you have 45 cents for a cup of coffee”; “Can you spare a dollar for bus fare”. On my bike rides home I’ve had several conversations with multiple homeless people/families at the intersection of El Camino and Northgate about several topics (the weather, drug addition, missing people, the Sacramento river, health insurance, food stamps, dogs – lots of dog conversations – warrants, medicine available at the dollar tree, etc.).
[By the way, Sacramento residents: the next time you see someone on the corner selling the Loaves and Fishes newspaper, BUY ONE. It’s a dollar, and we’re all usually on our way to buy an overpriced coffee anyway, so give these people a buck. It’s a newspaper set up specifically for the homeless population in Sacramento to sell. It encourages people to get up and practice customer service skills, entrepreneurship, sales, whatever – it better than sitting there asking for money, they are WORKING, and activity selling a paper that highlights issues, concerns, and celebrations in the Sacramento homeless community. BUY A PAPER.]
Los Angeles homeless are usually performing. Lots of singing (usually and surprisingly kind of good singing, mostly about Jesus), creating elaborate creatures with sand on the Venice boardwalk, clapping/playing a self-made musical instrument (i.e., drums made out of coffee tins).
New York homeless… I can’t remember. Been too many years. Pre-blog. Bummer. I recall a lot of sleeping on the subway benches at like one in the morning, which was interesting because they purposely put in dividers on the benches to discourage that – must have been uncomfortable.
Chicago homeless tend to be quiet, non-conversational, and have a cup or can out to drop money.
Paris homeless are especially sad, because they can usually only afford cheap Pinot Noir with scores less than 80 points and croissants that are already a few hours old – not even fresh from the oven! Kidding. Similar to L.A. homeless.
San Diego homeless work hard to collect recycling. No joke. You see people on the beach digging through cans and deftly sweeping Pacific Beach collecting beer bottles from all the frat kids. You see people up at sunrise, 5AM or 6AM, making a sweep of all the garbage cans to collect recycling before other people get out (lots of competition I guess). Getting up at the crack of dawn to been the crowd to the garbage bins is WORK, and is a hell of a lot bigger sacrifice that I was making when I arrived at 9:30AM to my window office as a graduate research assistant at San Diego State during the same time period.
San Francisco homeless are pretty varied I think, but include equal populations of folks who are singing/performances like Los Angeles, sitting quietly like Chicago, or a unique bunch of young folks who look like hipsters/scensters who just haven't’ showered in a day or two, with Doc Martins and dreds (White people dredlocks, fyi), vintage bikes and a guitar. Go home kids. Marin County misses you.
Atlanta homeless, I learned, attempt to draw you in to a conversation by walking along side you. “Good morning! Beautiful day today, isn't it? I think I've seen four cars drive by in the last 10 minutes with all the windows rolled down, fresh air rolling in! Hey, I hate to bother you, I can tell you’re in a hurry, but I’d like to insert elaborate request for money here.”
I don't usually give out money - regardless of they city I'm in, exceptions for especially vivid performances or for a newspaper. So, after walking home after a great evening with my husband, a man approaches and starts to walk with us. He opens his leather wallet to show an ID (or something?) to us, and begins to speak to Doug. “Excuse me sir, I know you’re walking home and are in a hurry, but I -- ” when I cut him off, give him my brightest smile, and say kindly but firmly “No thank you! Have a good evening.”
About ten feet later, he responds to my no thank you by yelling: “Prejudiced BITCH!”
My initial reaction was to turn around and confront him, either by saying “Excuse me?” (this is a good line because there’s usually no retort, so you win with the last word, sweet!), by throwing something at him (I have good aim and as we learned yesterday there's lots of dead bugs and mushrooms around), or (this was probably the most likely action I would have taken) giving him the finger and shouting “Fuck you, asshole.” Instead, I did nothing and kept walking, reason being I was with Doug (who would have probably bore the brunt of any attack that this guy took upon us, unfairly), was in an unfamiliar neighborhood with no other people around, and overall it would have been stupid and pointless.
I was fuming.
I was fuming.
Then I thought: was I being prejudiced? Was I being a bitch? Equal parts both?
After spending 2 days in a conference about cultural competence, public health messaging, respecting different public health practices, and the historical injustice and institutionalized racism that ethnic minorities have experienced in America, I was feeling pretty irritated. Does this asshole know I've worked specifically towards the health and well being of three distinct ethnic groups, that are not my own, in my public health career? That I majored in Sociology? That I have, over the years, inadvertently yet appreciatively had friendships with several people that do not look like me, that come from different areas and backgrounds and practices, and that I appreciate and love every one of them? That I strive to practice a tolerant and equal rights lifestyle, not only based on race but gender (feminist) and sexuality (gay and lesbian ally) too? That I haven't shopped in Wal-Mart for over a decade because of their gender-based discriminatory practices and that I've boycotted the Boy scouts of America for an equal time frame, despite having loved ones enrolled and thriving?
That’s a stupid thought. Of course he doesn't know that. What he knows is what he saw. And what he probably saw was:
White female. Thirty-something. Clean and showered. Form-fitting clothing (pink skirt and black tank). Black leather Mary Jane style shoes. Expensive brand-name leather bag. Fashionable sunglasses. Diamond ring on wedding finger. Walking with a White, thirty-something male of probable equal stature.
So he saw me. And probably assumed I could spare a buck. Which, I could. I have a dollar. I've spent money on this trip on things that were not absolutely essential to my survival.
What I saw: Black man. Fifty-something. Wearing loafers, khakis, and a Bahamas-style shirt that were all pretty clean but noticeably tattered. Leather wallet and no other possessions on him. Approaching me in a manner that I had come to associate with a homeless person asking for money in Atlanta.
Did I act in a prejudiced way? Yes. I assumed, based on his dress, demeanor and approach, that he was going to ask me money. In the same way that 3-4 other people had already asked me for money in the last 2 hours today. I assumed he was homeless, or either living in poverty, and that he was probably without a job. Further, when he called me a prejudiced bitch, I assumed it was because I was White and he was Black. And when he screamed at me, I assumed that he was a total fucking asshole.
I think it’s safe to say that we probably both made a judgment call on each other instantly, as well as further judgment calls afterwards. Maybe he wasn't calling me prejudiced because I was White and he was Black – maybe he was calling me out because he thought I was prejudiced against homeless people, people on the sidewalk, people in Atlanta, people who wear Bahama shirts in an urban city… but probably not.
As a White, middle class female, I have the privilege of rarely having to acknowledge my race. I want to state this as a fact, not brag about it (in fact it's actually kind of embarrassing to admit, when several of my colleagues and friends have to either acknowledge or think about their race daily, if not several times in a day). When someone gives me bad customer service, ignores me in a restaurant, gives me a dirty look, follows me around in a store, or otherwise does something douchy, it is RARE that I attribute it to being White. I can imagine that the same can NOT be said for people of color. Racism, while tempered in recent years, is still alive and well. There are tremendous amounts of data that can attest to this.
- Oprah being racially profiled while trying to buy a handbag
- Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal (famous resume sociological experiment)
- Whites are more likely to use drugs than Black or Hispanics, yet the latter receive a disproportionate level of media and thus biased and prejudicial attention
- Kill the Indian, Save the Child (Tribal Boarding Schools in America)
- Media portrayal of "looting stores" (Blacks) vs. "securing food during a crisis" (Whites) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
In fact, as we walked a little further away, I told Doug that I wanted to yell out to the guy that if he were White, I still wouldn't have given him any money. That’s when Doug told me that he hadn't seen one single White homeless person in Atlanta. They had all been Black… shit.*
So I will wrap this post up with six statements I would tell this man if I saw him again:
1. I’m really fucking glad I didn't give you any money, not because you’re black, not because you’re homeless, not because you’re wearing a Bahamas-style shirt, but: because you’re an asshole.
2. You made me feel shitty when you called me a prejudiced bitch, primarily because this goes against my self-identity.
3. I have ingrained prejudices. We all do. Some have them much stronger than others. But I actively try to acknowledge my own prejudices, because that’s the first step in overcoming them and eradicating them from society. I also acknowledge that I have benefited in society from being White. I have been given opportunities that I took advantage of, and these opportunities may not have been as readily available to you. That’s shitty, too.
4. You shouldn't yell at people like that. Unfortunately, you are (and always will be) held to a different standard than me. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact. So when you act like that… either with someone overhearing or witnessing the incident, or by virtue of me just writing this story and posting it online, I can GUARANTEE that someone will read it, ignore all the social justice crap I've researched and written in here, and think “Here we go again, typical angry Black man!”. So yelling that shit is doing nothing but giving fuel to all the racist White folks out there to justify their shitty behavior and uninformed attitudes. And trust me, there are a lot of racist folk out there. On a much lesser extent, I can empathize a tiny bit, as I suffer the same as a female. Crying at work will show passion if it’s a man, weakness for a woman. Confidence and directness will display a passionate leader for a man, yet make a woman a bitch. The list goes on. Don’t doubt for a minute that if I'm in a meeting where the majority of the attendees are men that I’m on high alert to “represent” all women.
5. I forgive you. In retrospect, to scream that out so quickly and with such force, has made me realized you've climbed a steeper mountain than I ever will ever have to. I will remember to appreciate all that I have and all that I have available to me, and will continue to ensure that my future public health work, personal actions, and lifestyle choices will reflect the person I want to be. Namely, someone who is anti-discriminatory, anti-racist, and anti-prejudiced.
6. Bahamas-style shirts are SO 2001.
As luck would have it, not 2 minutes later we ran in to another street person. He immediately asked “are you all from around here?” to which I confidently (and defiantly) replied “NO.” He said he could tell because if we knew what was up, we wouldn't have been walking along the stretch from the Fox Theater to the Downtown area – that he was a street person and not even HE walked down that stretch of road. So... consider us either incredibly brave and defiant of society norms that tell us WHERE we can walk to dinner, or, incredibly stupid. We talked the whole way back to our hotel (about 2 blocks), where we recounted our experience walking on that stretch of street (I think by the end we’d traveled that road 4 times with only the one incident, not too shabby). His name was Rick, and he also came from California – he was in the service and used to live on the Coronado Island base in San Diego, so we exchanged a few San Diego stories. He was living in Atlanta now with his son and his wife died last October. He now earned money by “helping people out on the street” with directions and restaurant recommendations, so he gave us a few tips (we’d already been to one of his recommendations, Juke Joint, which made me feel cool) and sight-seeing advice, and also random facts – like, if you get a jaywalking ticket in Atlanta it’s $94.
After he dropped us off at our hotel, we gave him some money.
If you're in the Sacramento area, in addition to purchasing the homeless newspaper, please consider a monetary or material donation to Sacramento Loaves and Fishes at http://www.sacloaves.org/
"Without passing judgment, and in a spirit of love and hospitality, Loaves & Fishes feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless. We provide an oasis of welcome, safety, and cleanliness for homeless men, women and children seeking survival services...We serve each person with the belief that "as often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me." (Matthew 25:40)"
*The next day we did see, what I assumed to be, a homeless man, who was White, at a MARTA subway station. I mean, I knew he was White, that was obvious. I assumed the homeless bit.