I should begin by emphasizing the possibility that I completely misinterpreted what I saw. I was driving by, at night, with headlights that are good for the road but cast light in a way that is not so good for understanding what I’m seeing off the road. I was looking very quickly because I was also having to steer through a curve.
That said, please bear with me. It’s the train of thought that matters here and in a way that if it even metaphorically reproduces the experience of homeless people, that experience, shared by so many, dwarfs even the concern we should have for the man I saw at the side of the road. We should instead remember that while I noticed this one man tonight, I see encampments of homeless people, sometimes the size of villages, almost everywhere I go.
The man was stooped over his belongings, which included a small pack. He was away from any houses and so I inferred he was homeless, intending to set up camp for the night, and adjusting his gear to carry in. The area is a grassy area adjacent to a freeway; I was on a road on the opposite side from the freeway.
It looked to me like he was preparing to wade into shoulder-high grass, grass that, given the extreme fire danger in this area, should either have been mown or subject to a controlled burn.
So I wondered if he would be able to escape in time should that grass catch fire. I wondered if crews showed up to either do that mowing or do that controlled burn, if they would notice the man before commencing.
The nature of homelessness is that it is a cascade of catastrophe. Perhaps you lose your job or the relationship you were in doesn’t work out or something else happens with where you were living so you can’t live there anymore. For whatever reason—and there are a multitude to choose from—you can’t afford rent on your own, so there you are, suddenly on the wrong side of the power relationship of private property.
You sleep where you can. You go to the bathroom where you can. It’s hard to stay clean. You’re tired all the time. The conditions you live in leave you more susceptible to illness in multiple ways. You cannot buy food that would actually be good for you because it requires preparation and you have no kitchen. So you buy processed food that has a lower value for its cost. Or you eat fast food, which is just junk. The cops roust you in the wee hours of each morning because they’re bored or because they received a complaint or maybe just because you’re an easy target. You can barely think because you’re tired and you’re not well. All of these problems feed off of each other, intensify each other, build upon each other, create ever more problems. The feedback of homelessness is catastrophically destabilizing.
I was thinking about that man. And I was thinking about all this. And I was thinking about how, as a society, we claim to value life.
Manifestly, we don’t. And we are hypocrites when we do.