Becoming one of “them”

November 26, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

A friend of mine who volunteered at a shelter in New York City told me this story over Thanksgiving. The shelter she worked in responded to the range of people affected by the crisis. Many of them, as always in a crisis, were those who were already struggling and marginalized – illegal immigrants afraid to go anywhere else, the already-homeless whose usual shelters and places of refuge were closed or underwater, the mentally and physically ill who had to be evacuated from hospitals in the flood zone. Many of the rest were storm evacuees from some of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, people who don’t normally find themselves in close quarters with the rest of their shelter mates.

My friend spoke of her frustration dealing with the richer victims, with their sense of entitlement, their horror at their companions. At the same time, she also recognized that they were traumatized and frightened, and victims too. What she found most difficult, however, was the constant desire of the more affluent residents of the shelter to let her know that they did not belong here, that they were not like the other people who surrounded them. Not only did they want better treatment, more resources, but they also were desperate for her to know that this was not their lives, that they were and are fundamentally different than the people surrounding them.

After one woman asked her to carry her cot into several different rooms of the shelter, never satisfied by who she would be sleeping next to, my friend struggled not to say “Look, you aren’t ever going to feel comfortable sleeping next to anyone, because they are still mostly going to be poor and not white – and I’ve got more important things to do than carry your cot around.” At the same time, she felt sorry for the woman, who seemed not less resilient, but more damaged than those who really had lost more.

I think she probably was. She was dealing with multiple new traumas – not just the shared and unified disaster of the hurricane, but the sudden, painful, ugly realization that the lines between herself and people who seemed very unlike herself were not so very great after all. That sudden and agonizing realization of her own vulnerability was a trauma that, fair or not, most of her neighbors in the shelter had already confronted – or perhaps they had never experienced a level of stability that would make them feel the world couldn’t collapse under them. That radical shaking of worldview can be incredibly painful – genuinely so, and can make any transition that much harder. The wild shift in expectation that is required when the world shifts under your feet can break people – far more than the actual physical circumstances. Indeed, it probably broke many of their shelter mates the first time it happened.

So how do you navigate that sense of loss, the trauma of changed expectations, the sense that all the things that you once believed you had a right to are now things you are a supplicant for? Because let’s be honest, as offensive as entitlement can be, it has its uses – the sense that something should be some way, that this is totally unacceptable can move mountains. The parents who say “Not good enough, my kid needs the best, most appropriate education for her special needs,” the grownup who says “Not acceptable. We need this fixed today, not three weeks from now,” the person who can demand, more often gets more. In a world of abundant resources, outrage that you are forced to suffer to live with something utterly inadequate is a tool, advocacy is a gift. Knowing when it becomes an abuse, or looks like high-handed entitlement can be hard – and we all have to know when that moment is (if you are yelling at waitresses or anyone with LESS power than you, btw, that’s a clue Image Removed )

There’s another thing we may have to do, however, to avoid the trauma endured by the people in that shelter – to recognize that despite all the barriers we perceive between ourselves and the most vulnerable people in our society, in the end, we’re like them, and our circumstances aren’t something we can fully control. We need to change our attitude towards the poor – partly because it is the right thing to do, of course, but also because we may become them. In fact, that’s the most likely outcome of our environmental, energy and economic trajectory right now – that most of us will come to know what I have long called “ordinary human poverty.”

One of the most stunning transformations of the cheap energy era was the sheer amount of economic growth it brought, and the shift from a world where most people were both poor and expected to remain ordinarily poor, to one where implicitly, we imagined everyone could be rich – and should be if they were trying hard enough. Because the rising tide of fossil-fueled economic growth for a time made it seem possible for everyone to do better, we presume that those who don’t want to. Rarely is that true. Sometimes it is a matter of “don’t know how to” but more often it is far more complicated than that.

The families that my foster children come from are generally not only poor, but deeply traumatized, and largely non-functional. These aren’t just poor families – although poverty alone can certainly put you on a track for removal, because if you can’t keep your kids fed or clean or safe in their housing, you can lose them – but families that often suffer generational poverty, and trauma, the kinds of repeated personal hurricanes and earthquakes that set them back over and over and over again.

One of the questions nearly everyone asks me about fostering is this: “Don’t you hate their parents?” Or occasionally “But what’s their parents’ problem?” I usually can’t reveal specifics, so it can be hard to answer in detail, but the truth is, no, I generally don’t hate their parents, because most of the time, I can see how I could have been them, how shovelling out from under those quakes might have been beyond me. As for what their “problem” is, well, they don’t have just one.

The majority of the parents I deal with are mentally ill, developmentally delayed, or addicted – sometimes all of the above. Their family histories are a series of disasters, social and personal.

For example, in one family, Grandfather died suddenly of a stroke in his 40s, leaving grandmother alone with three kids in a poor family that was barely making it to begin with. Grandmother worked long hours trying to do right and keep her kids fed and wasn’t there when her kids got home, and the poverty and violence of the streets around them took several of them – one died, one has been a drug addict for 25 years. The drug addict had a baby with developmental delays. Grandma is still working two shifts to care for her grandbabies now, and didn’t have time or knowledge to advocate for her developmentally delayed granddaughter. Because she attends an impoverished urban school with few resources, no one ever gives the granddaughter any services, and she staggers through school, concealing her lack of ability to master material with disinterest, and drops out as soon as she can. Impoverished, unable to get and keep a job, she trades what she has for money to help her grandmother, and eventually, for drugs, because that’s what everyone does and there isn’t much to do in a housing project with no employment or hope. Inevitably, she has a baby, maybe another, and now Grandma, retired with no pension (because the kinds of jobs she did didn’t have those), and a host of health problems caused by lack of insurance and bad food and poverty and standing on your feet two shifts a day for 38 years is caring for great-grandkids, along with her granddaughter and her addicted daughter when she comes home – and one day, she gets sick, and can’t do it any more, and the Mom, who with intervention and help might have been able to do more, might have been able to care for her kids, can’t meet their needs independently.

There are other birthparent pictures as well – the former foster kid never adopted struggling with the lack of ability to attach, lack of job skills and chronic homelessness, the mentally ill mother who stops taking her medication because she is afraid it may hurt her baby but then spirals out of control, but this one isn’t atypical, and it doesn’t derive from an easy cause and effect. Is the root cause generational poverty? Personal failures? Disability? Death? Who knows? What we do know is that every trauma and small disaster, whether the purely personal (illness, addiction, depression) or on a larger scale (racism, sexual violence, natural disasters, displacement). As Amit Chaudhury writes “While it may be true that the poor are people like you and me because we were all created by God, it is only through an understanding of a country’s history, and the history of the poor, that we can begin to appreciate that, indeed, the poor were people like you and me before something happened to them.” Something happened. Sometimes many things, sometimes self-inflicted things, often things from outside. So no, I can’t hate them.

It isn’t that you can’t hate people like you – people do it all the time. Once you acknowledge, however, that their fate could be yours, though, it is hard to be indifferent, and anger has to be tempered by understanding. I don’t like what the birth parents have often done, intentionally or non, to their children, but I can’t hate them, and I can’t see myself as fully unlike them. That, I think is the key to avoiding both hatred and that additional layer of trauma when someday someone who has never been truly, deeply, utterly aware of their vulnerability comes up against something they can’t control or overcome. It won’t save you – because no one knows how they will react. It just takes a layer of disaster away to know that being poor isn’t a moral failure and that you aren’t evil because you have to hold out your hands.

I was lucky – I was born without severe mental illness or handicap, into a family with health insurance and the skills of advocacy, where no one died young, where the family wasn’t overburdened by poverty and ground down by the boundary destruction that destroys supplicants. I lived in housing that wasn’t filled with rats and violence, in neighborhoods were drugs, while present, weren’t part of every corner. I had parents who read, who loved me, who had time for me, who didn’t work three shifts. My home was never demolished or destroyed, I never moved from shelter to shelter, I attached to my parents who had the ability to love me back and lived with them my whole childhood. I did some drugs, but by luck never became addicted. I did some foolish things but never did irreparable harm to myself or others. I failed and was able to compensate with the heady pleasures of sometimes success. I never fell into the mire of hopelessness. I did not live personally through fire, earthquake, hurricane, redevelopment, the opening of the psychiatric hospitals. I did live in the only century of human history in which class mobility was as great as it was, and where the sense of possibility (as opposed to the reality, which never quite lived up to the hype, but was still much greater than in most of human history) was endless. No war struck my shores, I lived in a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity and by good luck, good health, family circumstance and more good luck was not one of those individuals and groups mostly passed by.

Working with these families (and I work with them not as clients, but in a rather strange shared-family-and-parenting relationship that is duplicated nowhere else), I see myself. I see my neighbors in the impoverished urban mill towns I grew up in. I see the family members who struggled too, but were whiter, luckier, healthier, missed that one disastrous stroke – or they didn’t, but had gifts of resilience that others don’t. But resilience has its limits, and it can be surpassed for anyone.

The time of unparalleled prosperity is over. The shelter denizens went back – or will hopefully go back – to their lives. Some are lives of unbearable strain, misery and fragility. Others are lives of comfort…and fragility, because the one can so rapidly become the other. Many of us will be lucky enough to survive one disaster, to rebuild after that first time – but what about the next time, and the one after that? How many hundred year storms before the strain affects your health? Sometimes the answer is only one – a neighbor of mine lost his business to Hurricane Irene last year. Last I heard he had attempted suicide and was in psychiatric treatment because he could no longer support his family, because it all seemed so hopeless – what was the point?

The line between the person in the shelter who has never been dirty, hungry and cold before and the one who has done it for years is very fine – there was a first day on the streets for everyone, and while good fortune and ill fortune do not lead always to the same places, they can. We like to believe that the story of poverty is a clear one – of bad choices. And that’s a factor – but most of us will make a bad choice or two in our lives. Those of us who have been lucky enough to be cushioned, to survive our bad choices, to have enough positive going that some ill was only a small disaster have been lucky – but that luck may not last forever.

How many 100 year events can your family survive? How many energy crises and food price spikes? Job losses and natural disasters? Most of us may need to ask that question of ourselves. We can work to make our systems more resilient, we can work to build redundancy and security into our systems, but we can’t stop there, there is something else we must do – we must meet our impoverished neighbors and begin to see them as fully human, as fully like us. If we do not, we cannot expect others to see us that way when the time comes. Moreover, if we are reeling from the shock that our lives too are vulnerable and fragile, that we too could find ourselves desperate and frightened with those who have been suffering that state for a long time, we will not be able to step up and rebuild what we can from our losses. For ourselves, and for those who have already had one too many disasters, we must shake out of our heads the idea that the poor are not like us, that we are not, ourselves, tomorrow’s poor.


Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts of an ethical, local, healthy food system and tells readers how to begin putting food by, and the newly published Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, which "shows readers how to turn the challenge of living with less into settling for more".

Tags: community emergency response