Unconditional Soup

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to convince people to give my little organization, Time of the Month Club, money to buy homeless women tampons and pads which, once used, will be heaved into some landfill along with disposable diapers and other unpleasant detritus of lives lived in the city.

If one subscribes to the notion that teaching a man (or woman) to fish is superior to giving them fish, then I ought to be doing something more substantial, more enduring that handing somebody a freezer bag of 20 tampons which will be used and tossed in a week’s time. Next month the same woman will need 20 more and the month after that and the month after that. It’s endless.

It’s the challenge that food pantries and meal programs face. The same people come in week after week, nothing really changes. Your good soup served up doesn’t change the reality of poverty. It’s just soup, not an elixir. It functions only in the moment and doesn’t build anything, lead anyone anywhere, teach them how not be a person needing soup. It is just soup.

Frustrated by the limitations of soup, some do-gooders decide to make receipt of their soup conditional, as in, I will give you soup if you come to this employment workshop or I will give you soup if you sign up for food stamps (presumably so you will not longer need donated soup). The conditions are intended to generate progress, a changed, improved state in which one is no longer dependent on the generosity of do-gooders to get by. And that is a good thing, I guess.

But it puts me, the do-gooder, in the driver’s seat of a car I don’t own.

It’s not up to me to hold tampons and pads – or soup if I peddled soup – hostage, pending someone’s compliance with what I think they ought to do with their lives. It’s also not up to me to judge anyone, to decide that some people are more worthy of my precious tampons and pads than others. The parameters around what I do through my wee organization are very tightly drawn. I give homeless women tampons and pads and walk away.

They don’t owe me anything. You see, I’m not giving people menstrual supplies in order to changes their lives. I’m doing it because the thought of women having to scrounge up toilet paper or paper towels or socks to deal with their periods is awful, just on its own, not as a symptom of anything else. The lack of menstrual supplies readily lends itself to a systemic analysis of gender bias and ten thousand other terrible, cosmic things but I don’t think about that. I just think about some poor girl stuck in a stall in a public bathroom with no clue how she’s going to pull herself together and walk out into the world. There’s no ambitious change envisioned by helping her with tampons and pads. The goal is just to help her get out of the stall with her pants and dignity intact.

So once I’ve delivered menstrual supplies and they’re received, the transaction is complete. No one owes anyone anything. No one has a hold over anyone else. Everyone is free to make their next move in the world. I like that way of thinking an awful lot. It feels like respect to me, like what I would want if I was stuck in a bathroom stall or needed a bowl of soup.

Eye of the Beholder

“This feels like homeless porn,” I said to the other women in the outreach van.

It felt like all those pictures of the ruination of Detroit, the desolation of its once ornate and grand places, the degradation of churches and train stations. Whole magazines were devoted to Detroit’s jeweled rubble, prefacing the accusation on everyone’s lips: How could they have let this happen?

The homeless encampment is in our city near a major thoroughfare, across the street and around the bend from a McDonald’s where the people who live in these tents gather for coffee and where they wait for the Street Angels outreach van to come three times a week – Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

When we parked on the street near McDonald’s, our ‘customers’ came out to the van one by one to get a sack with a hot dinner and a bag lunch, gloves if they needed them, or maybe a clean pair of pants or a roll of toilet paper. There were several men and two women. The men were different ages, in varying states of distress. Some were new to homelessness, you could tell, and others wore their experience like a second skin; it had become really who they are.

One of the women was a person I’d met in the warming station several weeks ago when it was bitter cold; she always looked, as I described her last night to my companions, as if she were on her way to the office. Instead, every morning, after she awoke from sleeping on the church gymnasium floor she straightened herself up and went to work at a laundromat.

I asked her once where she would have stayed had she not come to the warming room. “With my friends,” she answered and I thought to myself, maybe her pride won’t let her tell me where she would really have been staying. Because if she had friends to stay with, why would she have come to this place to sleep?

She came because it was too cold to stay in her camp with her friends.

That possibility had never occurred to me, mostly because even after so many years of studying homelessness, sifting through data, and writing long funding proposals, I am ignorant. I had ascribed to them an ‘otherness’ that set them apart from what ‘regular’ people would do. What would regular people do? They would form groups, create families, arrange mutual aid, look out for each other, have friends.

When I snapped the picture, I wondered, is this a pitiful thing? Am I taking the picture to show my friends that I’ve gone places where people are living in tents? Is this encampment shameful? Is this homeless porn? Or is this something else?

Could it be a picture of resilience? Maybe. All I know is that it isn’t the pitiful sight it would have been to me several months ago now that I know about the woman living there with her friends; it is more complex, deeper, more significant, more meaningful. And more challenging for me to understand.

Curfew in Milwaukee

Tell the kids to come home

It’s dark out there

There are cars driving fast

And people with guns

Tell the kids to come home

Sit still on the couch

Listen for the army

And hold their breath

Tell the kids to come home

Put on their pajamas

Draw pictures with markers

And pretend they are small

Tell the kids to come home

Remind them what happened

Say the whole long story

And give them hope