Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A stretch of river II: An article and a frame

First, the article: Today's on-line edition of the Wichita Eagle has this article about things seen while canoeing the Arkansas within the city. It ain't Walden, but it IS informative for those of you who don't live here, in that it gives an accurate sense of the river's topographic and aesthetic qualities. And I learned something as well: that the stretch of river that Scruffy and I walk is actually the Little Arkansas. Details, details. But learning this does remind me in some ways of my earlier ignorance of Gypsum Creek and how my subsequent visits there taught me more about that little corner of the city than I ever suspected there had been to know.

Anyway: just downstream from where we live, the two rivers meet. This statue, the Keeper of the Plains, easily an iconic image for the city, marks the confluence of the rivers.

Now the frame: The article briefly mentions two "hobo camps" that the writer and photographer passed by on their float downstream. As it happens, I'd been spending some time of late thinking about homeless people and the complicated problems that they have and that they pose to communities. I have some small experience working with homeless and poor people; for one year while I was attending Rice, I volunteered time at an ecumenical food pantry that also supplied clothing, helped with utility bills, and called to find space at shelters for people who needed it. But I confess that that time there didn't help me come up with any solutions--it just allowed me to see more clearly that complexity. Fast forward to the past couple of weeks: On my stretch of the river in the dawn, Scruffy and I have twice awakened people sleeping along the path we walk. And almost daily we see the stereotypical signs that people have spent at least part of the night along the river: food wrappers, empty beer cans and bottles, etc. (though I suspect that some of the neighbors might be responsible for some of that litter).

These encounters have made me think more actively about the literal definition of the term "homeless." And yesterday afternoon on our walk, I recalled something that I witnessed on my first trip to New York.

It was one night between Christmas and New Year's Day; I was heading toward Broadway, a couple blocks north of Times Square, following a couple with two young children. We approached a cardboard box that had once held a refrigerator and was now laying on its side. Out of the open end extended two legs: a man (I assumed) sleeping. The parents ahead of me, as far as I could tell, kept looking straight ahead as they passed; one of their children, though, stopped and knocked gently on the box, just as though he were knocking quietly on someone's door. It was funny, yes, but also, as I now think about it, that boy's gentleness was entirely appropriate. The sleeping man--"homeless" according to traditional definition--was nevertheless, in another sense, "at home": in that public space that is our collective, our communal, home.

The second sleeper Scruffy and I awoke, which was two days ago, had his head resting on the paved path. After making sure that Scruffy wouldn't hurt him, he apologized for being there. I apologized for awakening him. And that's the frame: that simple recognition by people and governments that the homeless are at home, that they have the same rights and responsibilities in the public space as the rest of us, that those rights should be respected AND those responsibilities met. That doesn't mean that governments don't have the right to regulate their behavior in that space, nor does it mean that the homeless are not, as a population, a drain on a city's various resources. They are--but then again, so are we all. And that's the point. Our collective attitude should not be, They are in the way, but, Let's provide a place for them--that is, let's presume for them that same essential dignity that we would hope people presume for us.

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