Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week Musings on Homelessness and Safety

Last night, I left my office about 8:45 at night.  As I exited the stairwell, I heard shouting from the direction of the breezeway where students hang out.  I looked that way and noticed a man with a cart turning from the sidewalk into my school's parking garage.  He was agitated and shouting, but I couldn't see anyone else with him.  In other words, it wasn't a fight.

As he got closer, I could discern words.  Lots of profanity.  Sentences that seemed threatening:  "You can't tell me what to do, you damn, white bitch.  I'll do whatever the fuck I want.  I don't have to look like a fucking white person."  On and on he went.

If he hadn't been cursing at such high volume, I'd have probably let it all go.  I'd have seen him as a man with a cart taking a short cut through our parking garage.

But a short cut to where?  All that's behind us is the port.  Once upon a time, you could wander through the port, but not after September 11, 2001.

Was he talking to me?  I honestly have no idea.  But his agitation worried me.  I knew that classes were about to let out, and I worried about the safety of the students and the safety of the man with the cart.

So, I did what I've been trained to do; I went to the security guard.  Happily he was there.  He came out and we listened to the man with the cart, who by then had gotten to the back road behind our parking garage.  Hopefully, the man with the cart just kept going.

You might be saying, "Why is this so strange?  Your school is by a port in a fairly large metropolis."  Or maybe you're thinking that I reacted like a typical white, middle-class woman who felt threatened by someone who seemed homeless.  Maybe you're thinking, "Hey, it's Florida--lucky for the man with the cart you didn't have a gun."

Here's what made me feel strange all night:  just hours before, my suburban church helped serve dinner to homeless people at the downtown church.  The man with the cart (and yes, I assumed he was homeless) could have been one of those guests.  And here I was, reporting him to the security guard.

Of course, I wouldn't have called attention to him if he hadn't been agitated and cursing.  I'd have whispered a prayer for him and wished that I had more to offer.

I also felt strange because it's Holy Week, and while normal life goes on, I have all sorts of other narratives in my head, narratives of Last Suppers and crucifixions and betrayals of all sorts.  How would Jesus have handled the cursing, agitated, homeless man?  Invited him to dinner?  Cast out his demons?  Let him go about his business?  Called the security guard because that's why we pay these experts?

It's also been a tough week at school, as we face our first week without our colleagues that we lost in the lay offs.  I feel like all my nerves are exposed.

I also felt strange because of all the race dialogues (or monologues or screaming fits) we've been having about race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shootings.  I'm aware of my white privilege, my class privilege, but the way I move cautiously in the world because of my gender.  I'm also aware that I'm a tall, white woman, a mid-life woman who isn't tiny, which also buys me privilege.

Did I feel threatened by the man with a cart because he was homeless, because he was male, because he may have been a different race?  No, I felt threatened because he was agitated and cursing.  And he was wandering around a parking garage, where people drive fast and carelessly and aren't looking out for pedestrians.  I saw so many ways it could all go wrong.

I drove home trying to convince myself I'd done the best I could.  I've written about these issues before, mostly at my theology blog (go here for a meditation on why homelessness is so difficult a social problem to solve and here for a meditation on the fact that we're a society that allows pregnant women to sleep on the streets).  I wish I had a problem-solving way to conclude.  I wish I had some pithy insights.

I wish that I lived in a society that took care of the underclass below the lower classes so that I didn't have to ruminate upon these things on a rainy Maundy Thursday morning.

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