Amen, Amen. It is time for us to come together like church on Sunday. I kind of mean church before COVID, although since COVID I have spent many days listening to Father Marotte, St. Paul’s Episcopal, Park Memorial, St. Luke’s, and many other area churches. So in a way the advantages of COVID have been strong: more are viewing services according to several pastors I have talked to; there is a vigorous exchange among people on social media; and if it’s warm enough to sit on your porch, sidewalk conversations are plentiful. People are wanting to reach out in a way that had become a thing of the past.
The frightening reality of COVID hit all of us in a way that jolted us into the reality that life is short and caring for each other can never again be a thing of the past. So many people have stepped up to “pay it forward” to the person in back of them at the store, restaurant or drive-through. Not expecting a thing in return, just a moment to know that they had touched another human being. So much of that had been lost in our busy oftentimes isolated lives.
I have had the privilege of working with people who are dependent on the kindness of strangers daily and marveled at just how kind the people of this community are. I knew that anyway. They have supported me through the shelter, and now through our grassroots organization that will continue to serve the homeless on several different levels: direct services in securing housing and assistance programs; advocacy for both those experiencing homelessness and the programs helping them; and assisting other communities in developing programs and services for the poorest in their communities.
I used to say I often felt like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” My life depended on the kindness of those strangers who didn’t know me but stepped up to help, and there were and are so many. I have been blessed with that. Along with that came the knowledge that we have a wonderfully caring and giving community full of people who were fair and honest and who wanted to help. But there is the other reality, as well, the “Not in my backyard group,” the people who want to help but just not here folks. If not here then where, if not now then when? As we plan a beautiful community it needs to be inclusive and it needs to be a community of compassion.
Our reality is that we are only a mile from a major metropolitan city that has some serious issues. We ourselves have those issues on a smaller scale, so dealing with that plus the issues of those seeking refuge here is a daunting task. The thing is, it is Indiana. We are in America, and people have the right to move wherever they want to go. What we do with that speaks more of us than of those we may or may not serve.
If I could wave a magic wand back to the first day I served a truly homeless person (a local man who was an alcoholic) I would. I watched as homelessness evolved in this community; we all did. It was in full swing by 1985. Two years after President Reagan took office, the Graham Rudmann Act was enacted. It was designed to reduce the budget and balance it by gutting the programs from the War on Poverty. It was justified through the image of the Welfare Queen and horrible stereotypes about those living in poverty.
It closed mental health hospitals, eliminated the budget for the Community Services Administration (Community Action Programs) and people had to regroup and perform services under very difficult circumstances. We didn’t have to be here. Mentally ill people were set out to wander the streets but no follow-up dollars came for Community Mental Health Centers. Agencies were overrun with limited resources, public housing budgets were cut, housing programs were cut, and restrictions on welfare and food stamps made it impossible for people to apply for them with any vestige of pride left.
By the ‘90s we began to wake up a little and some programs were restored and others such as job programs and incentives for people to go to work were created. Efforts were made to create shelters across the country to meet the growing need of those experiencing homelessness. It was very much a political decision and affected the next 35 years of poverty programming in this country. We can’t go backwards.
I was so encouraged by the participation of those having a dialogue this past Thursday during an online community forum, because the 29 people who called in really wanted to know how we could humanely deal with our poor. Over 3,000 have viewed the conversation. People want to help, I believe that. They also want humane solutions. We can do this, and we must do this.