Homeless in Washington, DC

I do not like job fairs.  Not once in the past year and a half have I ever gotten so much as an interview out of a job fair.  Most jobs are for IT, engineers, financial wizards, and the like.  I’m in the human service/non-profit work field.  Job fairs have always been a waste of my time.  So, when my husband walked in to our bedroom this morning and excitedly told me of a job fair taking place this very day in the district (Washington, DC), I was less than thrilled.  Immediately I dismissed his suggestion, and protested “I need time to prepare.  Who will be there, anyway? I don’t have any resumes printed out.  Those things never pan out for me!”  But Richard persisted,  “If you don’t go, you for sure won’t get a job.  And who knows what connections you’ll make?”  I hemmed and hawed.  It was now almost eight a.m.; the event started at 10.  If I hurried I could be there by eleven and still have some time to network…maybe.  So, as you have already surmised, I kicked into gear: shower, dress, make-up (never wear it unless absolutely necessary), hair (another “yuk” for me.)  I quickly printed out five copies of my resume and in short order, dressed to the hilt,  I was ready to go.  Rushing out the door, I grabbed my camera, a book, and some writing materials.  If this proved to be a bust, then I would at least have options.  A beautiful day in the district was not so bad.  Whatever happened, I would make the most of it!

Hours later, and much to my surprise, I had to admit that this was a great job fair.  I came away with loads of information, helpful tips, and new professional acquaintances, not to mention a few job leads that just might pan out.  I was excited!  (This part of the story to be told at a later time!)

Afterward, happy that my husband had told me about this event–and that I chose to attend–I decided to take a walk.  After all, I had a book for reading, paper for writing, and a camera for shooting!  It was still early in the day, and this day was proving to be perfect in many ways.  Sunshine, mild temperature, people walking.  Lovely.  I was in the district with no hurry to get home.  Walking down the street on this glorious day however, I came upon one homeless beggar after another.  I had never seen so many in a single day in all the times I had been in the district.  As is my custom, I keep a coin purse with me, and if I come upon someone asking for money I will drop a coin or two in their cup, and offer a kind word before I continue on my way.  I do this to acknowledge to the person with an outstretched hand and cup (and to myself) that s/he is human and worthy of noticing regardless of  circumstances.  I’ve been in Boston, New York, Detroit, Chicago, etc. and for years this has been my practice.  However, in all that time I have never felt so compelled to write about homelessness as now.   Why now?  I think it has to do with the mood of the country at the moment, and my concerns for our general lack of compassion, and specifically, our hatefulness toward the needy among us..

Recently I saw a video posted on  youtube of a “tea party” gathering to protest healthcare reform.  I have no problems with people protesting something they don’t agree with.  Protests have been a part of this country’s fiber since its establishment.  I’ve participated in a few protests myself.  However, there was something different and ominous about this particular protest.  A 60-year-old man named Robert Letcher, who happens to have Parkinson’s disease, came to protest the protest.  There is nothing new about that, happens all the time.  Bob, due to the progression of  his disease, was unable to stand, so he sat in front of the line of protesters holding his sign:  “Got Parkinson’s? I DO and YOU might.  Thanks for helping!  That’s community.“  The sign was not threatening, or at least it did not seem so to me.  The response from the tea partiers, however, was appalling.  One man leaned over Bob shouting in his face, “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town.”  Another man, young and well dressed, came from the crowd and started yelling at Bob “I’ll pay for this guy.  We’ll start a pot…” all the while throwing dollar bills in Bob’s face.  The scene was humiliating and disgusting.  No one in that crowd sought to intervene or stop the aggressive behavior of the tea partiers.  Not one person bothered to find out this man’s story.  Well, here is his story.

Robert Letcher is a Nuclear Engineer with a PhD from Cornel University. When diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he continued to work as long as he could until the disease made it impossible for him to continue.  There was brain surgery (successful in reducing his symptoms, for awhile at least) and other procedures incurring huge medical bills, more than his insurance covered.  Eventually Mr. Letcher had to take medical disability.  An academic, raised in a large, loving family, Letcher learned the value of treating others with respect, and caring for the “least” among society,   His reason for going to the protest was to offer a different view-point, and to help people see that extenuating circumstances can put any one of us at risk of losing job, status, home, health, and more.  What he received from the crowd was nastiness.

Mr. Letcher is not homeless, at least not to my knowledge, but this incident does shine a light on a disturbing trend.  I saw another video of a woman (California) yelling “Heil Hitler” to an Israeli Jew because his opinion on some matter differed from her own.  Just this week, I read about a homeless man asleep under a bridge, set afire by some unknown assailant.  His burns were bad.  The last I heard, he is still alive.  What is going on that the strong, the healthy, and the able are kicking the weak, the sick, the disabled while they are down?  When I see these things happening, my heart breaks.

One of the many arguments against helping those in need is that if we give them hand-outs, they will just become lazy and dependent.  I can see how folks might buy into that philosophy, given the pop culture jargon about “co-dependence” and “enabling” behavior.  And to be honest, there are valid points to be made.  But what about our religious teachings?  Do they offer guidance on how we should treat the homeless and sick?  Jewishly speaking, I am required to think, act and speak charitably. (I checked this out, and since there are too many sources and opinions to cite here, I’ll leave it at this.)  For Christians, the Sermon on the Mount spells out how to live in holy ways.  That includes giving to the poor, the orphan and the widow.  I am not nearly so familiar with Islam, but I do know that one of the five pillars of their beliefs is Zakat, almsgiving for the poor and hospitality to travelers.  It seems to me that most (or all) religions speak to the issue of how we are to treat the poor, the homeless, and the sick.  None of the religious teachings I have been able to search out tell us to ignore the issue, or to humiliate those less fortunate than we are.  Our beloved book of Ruth begins by telling of Elimelech, a wealthy man living in Bethlehem, who, when famine struck, packed up his family and headed for another country.  Why?  Because he did not want to deal with his fellow countrymen who would be knocking on his door and asking him for help.  What happened?  He died an early death, as did  his two sons, leaving three widows behind, their wealth spent.  The story of Ruth is about what happens after Elimelech dies, nevertheless, the first paragraph of Ruth is very telling as it points out the flaw of hoarding our riches and ignoring those in need.

Why don’t the street beggars go get a job like the rest of us? I thought about that retort.  And I thought about what I went through to get ready for the job fair this morning.  If a person is without a home, where are they going to bathe in preparation for an interview?  Where are they going to get clean interview clothes to wear?  How are they going to pay for transportation to and from the interview?  How do they go about getting their resumes typed, printed, and submitted?  The list goes on and on.  Just how are the homeless supposed to get work?  I, a person with many skills and abilities, not to mention access to everything I need to conduct a job search, have been unable to secure a job.  I’m lucky because presently my husband is employed.  But the homeless are not so fortunate. There are other issues for them as well.   Many of the street people have mental disabilities.  How do we address that problem?  How many of our poor or disabled, like Mr Letcher, are highly educated, responsible people who fell on hard times?

Politically speaking, I haven’t a clue how to address this humongous problem.  Personally, though, I have no doubt as to what I am to do.  If I err, it will be on the side of compassion.  I am expected to extend a hand of help when I can.  There is an illustration that I have used in other places and times that I find very àpropos here.  A man was walking along a beach littered with hundreds of starfish that had been washed ashore.  Further down the  beach he saw a woman picking up starfish, one by one, and tossing them back into the sea.  As the man approached her, he asked, “Why are you throwing the starfish back?  There are far too many, you can‘t possibly rescue all of them.  What difference does it make if a few survive or not?”  The woman, leaning over to pick up another starfish, responded as she tossed it back into the water, “it makes a difference to that starfish.”

It was a glorious and provocative day.  There is much to ponder.  I will continue dropping coins in cups for the homeless.  I will continue to seek ways to address this big problem.  I don’t know where you stand on these issues, but I welcome dialogue and suggestions.  What are your thoughts on this?  I would love to hear your response.

P.S.  To be fair to the man who threw the dollar bills in Mr. Letcher’s face, I urge you to check out the following link.  His name is Chris Reichert, and he is really not a bad person.  Please take time to read the article.  There is always hope for teshuvah/repentance, and for healing.  I applaud Mr. Reichert for the steps he has taken since the incident mentioned in this blog.


Mr. Robert Letcher‘s response to the hecklers:

3 thoughts on “Homeless in Washington, DC

  1. Thanks for this inspiring piece. I too am bothered by the lack of compassion I see. A friend’s letter to the editor (which I think adds to this discussion) recently appeared in the Washington Post.

    Why Newt Gingrich is wrong about President Obama

    As President Obama leads America toward caring for all of its citizens — not just those who are generating wealth — he is being Christian, not secular. The fact that Newt Gingrich, in his April 23 op-ed and in recent statements, doesn’t recognize the Christian values in Mr. Obama’s policies is troubling.

    Mary Anne Thomas, Black Mountain, N.C.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Nancy. Also, thanks for including your friend’s letter to the editor.

      I have read your blog about child abuse several times. It is powerful, and I so appreciate your commitment to the abused of all ages. I tried to leave a comment but for some reason I couldn’t get it to post, so hopefully this will suffice. Additionally, loving your tweets! I’m a failure as a tweeter [?] but I’ll keep making a stab at it.

      Again, thanks for your comments. C

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