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The downtrodden are not 'takers' from society

Think "if not for the grace of God go I" when looking at people on welfare. And those poor still contribute to the common good, sometimes more generously than most of us.
A soup kitchen feeds the homeless in Detroit.

A soup kitchen feeds the homeless in Detroit. Stephen Boyle/Flickr

L. Patrick Carroll

L. Patrick Carroll

The characterization of individuals receiving public assistance as "takers" is uninformed, sometimes cruel, almost always heartless. My life alongside women and men reliant on public assistance is replete with stories that say, loudly, otherwise.

Early in my years working at an inner city Jesuit parish, St. Leo in Tacoma, I met literally hundreds of people coming for food, rent assistance, or emergency health care who were exceedingly hard-working, motivated, educated women and men, if down on what can only cynically be called their “luck.”

I think of a nurse with three children whose husband had depended on her salary. When her arthritis made it impossible for her to continue nursing, her husband disappeared, as did her health insurance, her rent money, and her ability to feed her children. This already well-educated woman needed enormous public and private assistance to keep her and her children alive while she retrained for a job she could do partially crippled. She hated taking help, but her children’s lives depended on it.

A low-IQ janitor at the vocational school next door to us worked six days a week to afford his modest, subsidized studio apartment and, when he didn’t have to work, he volunteered around his church.

Our church thrived on elderly people who — living in subsidized housing, dependent on small Social Security checks and Medicare — volunteered in myriad ways in our feeding programs and other social services.

Over the years, since Gov. Dixie Lee Ray, purportedly a Democrat, decided that folks with mental illness should not be in state institutions but, "living on their own," Western State Hospital, south of Tacoma, became a revolving door.

After episodes of manic or depressive behavior or a more serious bout of schizophrenia, when no longer judged a “threat to themselves or others,” myriad patients are released. Many barely manage to temporarily survive in or around downtown Tacoma on modest public assistance and multiple private services. Are they takers? Lazy? Unmotivated? Or are they people deserving whatever human dignity this, the Earth’s most-affluent society, can afford them?

I think of the many, many homeless veterans who frequented a downtown drop-in-center before we used the term PTSD — men who, while serving their country and us, developed drug or alcohol dependencies for which they now desperately needed treatment only sparsely available. Did they deserve assistance or were they simply burdens on our public coffers?

In later years, I was privileged to work in low-income senior housing near Seattle's Pike Place Market. Every tenant there depended on a combination of food stamps, rent subsidy, and minimal social security, VA benefits, Medicare, Medicaid as well as enormous private agency assistance. Most in public life and many voters appear unable to imagine what it is like to survive on $300 to $600 a month.

What is such survival like? Who are these dreaded takers?

A professional musician who spent years playing for a band on cruise ships, then became the maître’d at a high-end Seattle restaurant, lived well, bought a condominium with his girlfriend whose name, for tax purposes, was on the lease. At 40, he had a massive stroke. The girlfriend invited him to leave "her" apartment.

For two years, he lived on the streets of the city he had proudly walked before. When he found housing with us, he limped along, using his old computer with one hand, told marvelous stories of his earlier life. He did receive those food stamps, which some would have us believe are so easily and lavishly dispensed — actually a quite finite amount of money, put on a charge-type card each month. His allotment was $42.

Since he had to depend on community meals, the senior center, the food bank, and handouts for most of his meals anyway, he took that $42 once a month and bought a good steak, a baked potato, a bottle of fine red wine. It was a “feast” to remind himself of how he once had lived. I always admired that reckless behavior.

Another resident of our wounded inn had a degree in accounting. She had worked her way through college as a cook at a girl’s camp. It took her some 10 years to slowly pay her path through school. After graduation, she got a good job starting out at an accounting firm. Less than two years later she had a stroke, a fairly minor one. The part of her brain that thought sequentially was permanently damaged. Doing numbers was beyond her now, as was the simple task of following a recipe.

She looked "normal,” but the emotional and physical wounds were deep. Though she tried many different tasks, she could adequately perform none. Living now on the public dole, is she a greedy taker or does her mending of other residents’ clothes, her baking of cookies and cakes for every community gathering say otherwise?

Another had been a farmer’s wife in Minnesota. When she was in her early forties her husband died, leaving her to run the farm alone. She tried, but soon was felled with a disease (unnamed 20 years later) that left her with speech impaired, wheelchair-bound, and putting on enormous weight no matter how little she ate. She came to Seattle to be near her handful of relatives but found them unwilling or unable to help her, so she bounced from shelter to shelter before arriving with us.

This woman in her wheelchair came to every social event we offered, always smiling, never complaining of her lot. Every day, just getting out of bed was an act of heroic courage that left all who knew her stronger.

One man, an immigrant from Holland who worked construction for years before his now-controlled alcoholism put him on the streets, found himself in the hospital with a heart condition. Before his illness, he was again working part-time as a night watchman in a downtown building. He had no health insurance. Though he is now qualified for Medicare, he did not when the illness struck him. His hospital bill wandered in the neighborhood of $25,000. His only hope was to declare bankruptcy, quit working at his $9-an-hour job, and be now an invalid whether he wanted to or not.

Do we need health care coverage for everyone? Does that cost society less than the care people need later if we do not? Is such subsidized health care taking or making?

This community of quite dependent people, many of whom, to my admitted amazement, still vote Republican and believe in some form of American dream, never ceased to astound me with their spirit, their spunk, their generosity.

When flooding hit New Orleans, they took up a collection and sent almost $1,000 out of their meager personal funds to the victims. They did the same when a tsunami struck Japan. Twice a year, we took a van load of clothes and food to a women and children’s shelter sponsored by the same community that sponsored our facility.

This group of the very poor gave away a far higher percentage of what little they had than most of us who have a salary, including myself. Meanwhile, they paid taxes for the public good on toilet paper, light bulbs, clothes. Sadly now, in Seattle, they have to pay to ride the bus to see a doctor, visit the public library, or get to Value Village.

All across Seattle, we see folks who would far rather sell a newspaper, Real Change, than simply beg — a paper worth far more than the dollar it costs us or the 65 cents they earn. Even those folks we meet at busy intersections, waving signs telling us, perhaps facetiously, but tragically, if true, that they are “homeless vets,” work harder than many others do.

I urge this honesty about our society, about each other. Over the past 20 years the split between the most wealthy and the most poor in our society has grown faster and wider than at any time in our history.

Much initial wealth is inherited. We need not begrudge those who take from and hopefully build on their ancestor’s achievements, but that does not imply harder work or more personal merit than those assisted by government or other social services.  While we admire those who have worked hard and done well, we acknowledge that most are just a surprise accident, an unexpected illness, an unwanted family tragedy away from the unfamiliar, painful shoes of brothers and sisters so wrongly characterized as takers.

L. Patrick Carroll was a Jesuit priest from 1954-98. He served his Church as president of Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma and as co-pastor of St. Joseph's in Seattle, where he is a parishioner.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Likely the best encapsulization and illustration of the issue.

Thanks for writing this.

The Geezer, not feeling particularly geezerly today.

Geezer

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Pat--
Thanks for your article. I remember you from St. Joe's lo these many years ago. I'm now one of those people living on the edge; I don't look it yet, however. Keep letting people know that even well-educated, work-experienced people like themselves can slip out of the middle class. Keep tweaking those Capitol Hill middle-class sensibilities (and beyond!).
Katherine M.

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Certainly there are many members of our community who need and deserve our support. I've been one myself, although some might rightly argue with the "deserve" part in my own case. People did help me, and like many, I have since tried to return at least some of the help I received.

But sometimes this can be a slippery slope. I think of the guy at 15th West and Dravus with the sign reading: "Lifestyle Choice--Please Help". I might have been reading a New Yorker Cartoon. What is one to make of something like this? Guilt? Outrage? Reward for clever marketing?

A few years ago, at Dick's on Queen Anne, I tried a personal experiment. At the time the parking lot was often populated by beggars.
Over several months I was approached about 35 times by people asking for money for food, usually a dollar. I offered to accompany the person inside and buy him or her a Dick's Deluxe, fries, and a shake. In almost every case I was refused. One man told me that actually, he preferred the burgers across the street at Kidd Valley. Only once did one woman accept my offer. We went inside and she ate her meal in about three minutes. I bought her another burger and she wolfed that down, and I gave her a small amount of cash.

Interestingly, there are fewer such people at the same spot today. Where did they go?

gabowker

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Can you imagine what it is like to stand in front of Dick's an beg for money....or by a curb side....I do not see this as somehow the 'undeserving poor."

lpatrick

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 8:28 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems better to beg by a Dicks' (or any food business) than by the side of the freeway ... more opportunity to get a meal, if you're hungry that is.

In the 80's in Seattle a voucher system was tried. People could give vouchers that could be exchanged for housing, or food, or clothing, or even heat. Most people wouldn't take them, or just wouldn't cash them in ...

I met some teenage/college girls outside a grocery store years ago. They were sitting at the curb, with a sign that said "need money to pay for college". My group of friends just said "get a job like we did".

I worked all the way thru high school and college, 20 - 30 hours during school months, full time or more during summers. Why has it become such a burden for college students to actually work during college years?

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, these were only the smallest portion of the people that Mittens disparaged. His target wasn't necessarily just poor people, but those who pay no federal income tax. And I do agree with him that some of that crowd are government teat sucking freeloaders and having to make their own way without our tax dollars in the marketplace of life would do them a world of good. For example, Boeing and GE. These "people" pay no federal income tax despite being quite profitable. Its time they stood on their own limited liability feet. And lest ye point out that these are corporations and not people, remember, "corporations are people, my friend," as that scourge of such parasitism, Mittens, assures us.

Steve E.

Posted Wed, Oct 10, 6:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Could be that news got around, as it does on the street, that there was a strange person hanging around the Queen Anne Dick's who got off by watching poor/homeless/hungry people eat.

jmrolls

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

That might be true, but I was only able to watch one person actually eat. And I wasn't the one hanging around--just entering and leaving the restaurant unless I was approached.

gabowker

Posted Fri, Oct 12, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Such a touching story -- Mr. Carroll I'm sure you found the ones that would touch the heartstrings of potential donors or would support you in your cause. I personally have no issues with helping people such as the ones you mentioned, but I would also ask what about the thousands out there that refuse to work and have chosen this lifestyle? They exist in great numbers and there is nothing we can offer them no matter how hard we try. So why do we keep doing it? I am not willing to help if they don't want to help themselves and it's time they move on and find another charitable city. Our city is overrun with these people and its now to the breaking point.

Norge

Posted Sat, Oct 13, 8:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Do you actually know those thousands of people, Norge? If so, I guess your remarks can be taken seriously. Otherwise...

sarah90

Posted Sun, Oct 14, 7:48 p.m. Inappropriate

What's the homeless count every year Sarah -- at least 3,000 on the street -- only time they are willing to forego the alcohol and drugs is one on of those wet cold January nights. Those are the ones I refer to. So go back to church and pray and think about how strongly you feel about helping when it was only your money involved.

Norge

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