Thursday, August 30, 2012

Justice, Generosity and Boundaries
~ by Jay

We sent Eve to public school in a urban, challenged district because we wanted her to grow up in the real world, not in the upper-middle-class, all-white, all-our-children-are-above-average-and-should-go-to-college bubbles we grew up in. She grew up in the real world - she learned about food stamps and fathers in jail and mothers who couldn't pay the rent and 16-year-old sisters who had babies and kids who couldn't afford pencils and notebooks.

And now she's learning about homelessness.

Eve's friend Marcella lived with her mom and five other kids, some siblings and some half-siblings and at least one cousin, in a rowhouse in one of the most challenged areas of the city. Last week, one of their neighbors left a pot unattended on a stove. Five houses were destroyed in the fire. Everyone in Marcella's family got out safely and a brave bystander rescued their two dogs. The Red Cross put them up in a hotel for three days, and then they had to leave the hotel - and they have nowhere to go. Marcella texted Eve to say "We're out on the curb in front of our house and I don't know what we're going to do".

Sam got in touch with the school district and we gave Marcella and her mom the name and number of the office that assists homeless students; the school district has strong motivation to make sure Marcella and her sibling and cousin are all in school, and they have access to other programs. Eve is packing up some clothes to give to Marcella, along with some extra school supplies. We talked about why it's so difficult to find a new place to live - about deposits and landlords and exorbitant housing prices - and about the ways in which government could do a better job. But we didn't invite Marcella and her family to stay here. Eve didn't ask and we didn't offer.

We have room - we probably have as much room as they were living in. I wish I were the kind of person who could throw my house open to anyone in need. I wish I could really follow the commandment to care for the orphan and the widow and the stranger at our gates. I know I can't. Eve spent a fair amount of time at Marcella's last year; their house is chaotic and full of conflict. I don't know Marcella's mom at all. We live in an area of the city that isn't really served by public transit and it's too far for the younger kids to walk to school. Are those reasons or excuses?

Sam and I like to think we have a social conscience. We give money and we give time and we both work in relatively underpaid jobs because we believe in the value of what we do; we are still impossibly and unimaginably lucky and privileged. We would never be on the street because we have family who could take us in, and who could give us money. We have always had a safety net that Marcella will never know. I can't save everyone; I'm not required to save everyone. I know that. I have a right and even an obligation to keep my own family safe and to give myself a break from the chaos and emotional stress of the stories I hear at work. And yet, somewhere inside, I will always feel that I am not doing everything I could be doing to heal the world.


Moose said...

I don't know how to answer all of your questions, but I am thinking about a few things. You've directed the family toward a number of really good, important, local resources. These are programs that are *designed* to help in situations like these, with staff and volunteers educated and dedicated to doing things in what is hopefully the best (for some value of "best") and most efficient way.

Inviting a family into your home is such a big thing, and affect you and your family in many ways. The space you have may not be smaller than their old apartment, but having them present affects your family's use of the space too--and I include emotional/mental space here as well. Having planned guests is enough to throw off my routine and affect my work. How would this affect you? Affect what you do at your job? Will the stress/use of emotional energy give you less energy to use toward your patients? That is another place where (I perceive) you are working to heal the world.

Lots of words, and no good answers. I think you've done a lot of very good things to help.

Anna said...

There is nothing wrong with providing a shield for yourself and your family. I grew up with one, and I consider the one I build around my children to be one of my greatest gifts to them. There is a whole adult lifetime in which to learn about and hopefully do something about the deep injustices of our world. But I think the best place to start on that path is from the knowledge of the safety and security that is possible and should be accessible to everyone else. My deepest experiences of empathy came when I could compare my sheltered childhood to that of others.

Jay said...

There are no government programs available to help this family, unfortunately. Our social services have, of course, been cut to the bone over the last 30 years.

Moose, having them here would be stressful in a number of large and small ways, with loss of emotional and mental space high on the list. As I think about how difficult it would be, I feel as if we're rule-bound and inflexible and stuck in our ways and inhospitable, but I know that we need our home to be our haven and that the rules and routine we help create that for us.

Anna, the same thing is true for me, but during my sheltered childhood I wasn't even aware of the depth of injustice. I'm not sure if my lack of awareness helped me develop empathy; it does seem to have contributed to some enduring blind spots about class. Eve is aware of it - and I wanted that for her. But with that awareness comes deep pain, especially for those who are compassionate and empathic, and I wish I could have shielded her from that pain.

Orange said...

Perhaps your family could set up a bank account for donations to Marcella's family? If they lacked renter's/homeowner's insurance, they'll probably need to replace everything from bedsheets and dishes to clothes and the kids' toys.

If you do, let me know--I would send a check for sure.

Jay said...

Thanks, Orange. Someone has set up an account but we're not sure where - Sam is In touch with the school district and I'll let you know when we have the info.

F said...

We a had similar situation in our town recently. A few friends and acquaintances got the family target cards to tide them over for the essentials and worked with some of the local churches to fund counseling sessions for the kids. I believe that the pangs of conscience and not being totally indiferent should count for something.