One More Note

There is a woman who wanders our neighborhood. I don't know her name. But we see her often. She stops to give us gardening tips when we're potting our tomato plants on the front porch. She pauses to say "hello there!" and "cold night, isn't it?"

She is sort of like a fairy godmother. She pulls the heavy trash bins up from the curb after garbage pick-up, tucking them in their out-of-sight spaces between our house and the one next door. She carries a broom wherever she goes, sweeping leaves and fallen flower petals from the sidewalks. She does this up and down the streets. Everybody knows her.

She never wears shoes. Never. Not in the summer, when the asphalt burns. Not in the winter, in four feet of snow. She wears her long, gray hair tucked inside two bandannas tied around her head. She is missing her front teeth.

I don't know where she lives. I don't know how she gets by. I do know she gets her meals from a nearby soup kitchen. I've seen her walking back from there in the evening, with a Tupperware container in her hands. She looks up at me, on my porch, sipping my Shiraz. "Peas tonight!" she smiles and says.

The soup kitchen is around the corner, on a side street. I see the people lined up there in the late afternoons, waiting for the doors to open. The line, lately, has been growing longer.

I thought of the woman who sweeps our sidewalks when I read a news report the other day about the startling increase in homelessness in our community. Across Dane County, the number of people experiencing homelessness jumped 17% last year. Homeless shelters were forced to turn away 3,600 people in 2008 -- a 22% increase in the number of people denied shelter for lack of space and resources.

This is not a unique story. It's happening everywhere, from Baton Rouge to New York City.

But it is one example. One more important example. One more note in a sour chorus of "What am I going to do?" that can be heard in every corner of every community in every state in our country.

Sometimes economic hardship can strengthen a community. Sometimes it can inspire us to look beyond our own immediate needs and act in impressively selfless ways -- or realize the extent to which our needs are wrapped up with the needs of others. Suddenly the walls that separate "us" from "them" seem paper-thin, rubbed down to nothing in places. There is little difference between a college-educated CEO and a truck driver, when both are unemployed with bills piling in the basket by the door.

But hardship doesn't always do that. It can make us act in irrationally protective ways, cause us to fence off our property and stock up on guns. It can make us look upon our neighbors with suspicion. It can harden us, so we can more comfortably hold our purses to our chest and say, "This is mine. Fend for yourself. You are not my problem."

I don't want to be that kind of person. But I look around, or read the newspaper, or eavesdrop on conversations at the bus stop, or look into the faces of other shoppers at the grocery store, and I wonder, What will be enough? There isn't enough.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced budget cuts and employee furloughs to address a rising budget deficit (similar to the deficits plaguing 46 other states). Our County budget is stretched beyond thin. Nonprofits that provide emergency services for domestic violence survivors, abused children, and families on the brink of homelessness are worried their budgets will continue to shrink. Charitable giving across almost every sector has plummeted.

There isn't enough.

I keep reading the papers and watching the bulletin boards at the college campus near my office, looking for signs of revolution. Isn't it in times like these that revolutions get their start? I keep waiting for a sign that we, our community and our nation, are tired of allowing our neighbors to suffer. How long is too long, when we're talking about a soup kitchen line? At what point does the comfortably employed person say, "A homeless family is my problem"?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I've been unemployed since February, and things are starting to get tough. That pile of bills? Got one. Actually, several.

And yet, I find strength in my family. We are together, no matter how things turn out.

I do sense a growing "circle the wagons" mentality in the air, and it's scary . . .