GREATEST HITS: Today I Saw Revisited

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY  Today I saw a wino walking across a trash strewn lot on Ridge Avenue, down the street from the shelter. It was a classic image, a living stereotype stumbling with bagged bottle in one hand while the other waved in the air unsteadily, like he was struggling to get across the deck of ship in rough waters. He slowed and then stalled, as if he might change direction but had to think hard about the decision before continuing. Then he pitched forward, undulating towards the brick wall at the other end of the lot. When he reached the wall he leaned forward at an angle and laid the flat of one palm against it. He hung his head and took a deep breath. Once steadied his movements changed, becoming more sure; he began to bounce a little, shaking his legs out before putting the bottle down and spraying the wall with piss.

Up the block a ways the usual Ridge crowds were gathered, and on a warm day like today the flock was thick. One man walked briskly past wearing three heavy winter jackets layered on top of each other, all unzipped. He said, “Man, this weather’s crazy, this is the El Nino season.” There was a well dressed older white man walking with him, looking furtive and determined, not speaking. They sped off down the block to take care of whatever business they had to conduct together.

Outside the shelter a man was holding court (there’s always someone holding court outside Ridge) before a row of tired and run down looking men and women, all piled with thick clothes layers that were unzipped or partially removed, unecessary in the winter day’s unexpected warmth.  They all sat on the small concrete ledge that runs along the building’s front wall just east of Broad Street. The man was gesturing like a street preacher, fervent and animated as he said, “I don’t play. Naw, man, naw, I don’t play, man. I will not hesistate to put a nigga in the ground. I done did it before, man, plenty of times. But I don’t do no shit like that no more because I love my freedom, man, ain’t nobody gonna take that shit from me, man, because my freedom is everything.”

AFTERWORD: I caught heat from critics about descriptions in Today I Saw installments that some considered offensive, too harsh, unfair, inappropriately unsensitive coming from a social worker, etc.  My argument was always that I simply wrote what I saw, using the kind of raw language I heard in the neighborhoods I worked in at the time.  I also understood that such context free short passages can be coopted by people with certain political agendas to support assertions that run contrary to my own beliefs.  For example, a political conservative could use this passage to support their assertion that the homeless are a bunch lazy drunks.  That doesn’t bother me.  I don’t really care how political conservatives read what I write.

In fact, part of my agenda as a writer is to call into question white liberal middle class perspectives on issues like urban poverty.  These perspectives are too often poorly informed, too distanced from the problems to have much value.  My opinion is that urban poverty, racial inequality and social injustice in America persist not because of efforts by conservatives to maintain the status quo, but a lack of commitment from an increasingly wealth-driven left to demand real change.  Very few liberals have any direct involvement with any part of the social justice movement and rely on newspapers whose editors are often equally as distanced from the reality of the streets to shape their ideas of what poverty in America is like.  No wonder such stark descriptions are so jarring, you don’t see them often because very few people are capable of providing or willing to print them.

I wanted to force liberal readers into an uncomfortable space where their perspectives on urban poverty as viewed from the comfort of their dorm rooms or corporate offices collided with mine as I experienced it on the streets through my work.  In this particular installment we see Ridge Avenue shelter, the city’s main homeless shelter for men, the way I see it.  I don’t like homeless shelters.  I think homeless shelters are a collossal and costly failure of urban planning and policy.  I think they are inhumane places do nothing to treat central causes of homelessness like addiction and mental illness.  I think this installment conveys that much to perceptive readers without the need for editorial contextualizing.

Many liberals still cling to the understanding that homeless shelters are great things, and that to solve our homelessness problem we should build more of them.  My clients have told me that you can’t even take a shit in Ridge when you need to because all the toilets are clogged with crack caps, dope bags and dirty needles.  I don’t think the the shelter system’s failure as an institution could be highlighted any more clearly or forcefully than that, but it’s not a description you’re going to get from your daily newspaper, though I think it’s an important piece of information for readers to have.

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