Once there was a woman named Shawn, which was short for Shawnice, which Shawn thought was “just too much” name for her. After Shawn would say that, her five-year-old daughter, Sally, if she was with her and she usually was, would say, “My name is Sally and Sally isn’t short for anything because Sally is just long enough!” The first time she said that my co-workers, Trish and Stella, and I smiled at that little girl so hard that she must’ve thought we were nuts, but we were just delighted.
The group I worked with met Shawn because her apartment’s pipes had frozen and burst causing her emergency relocation across town and she needed us to help with transportation to her job and childcare. The night it happened, Shawn and Sally went to the local shelter. The next day, they had lunch at the shelter. They were asked to pray before they received food. But, because maybe they were new to the shelter, because they were vulnerable, because they weren’t white, because they were female, because they were poor, the man who worked there decided to take it a step further and asked Shawn and Sally, who, reportedly, told them later he suspected they were Muslim, to whom they had prayed. Shawn, a proud but private citizen, was without words. Sally was not, “I prayed to the god of peanut butter and jelly!” she exclaimed to the phony helper at what would be their last visit to this false shelter.
This is my 15th and final column for The Olympian – many thanks to this paper for the opportunity.
Many columns have been about low-income housing: who has it, who doesn’t, and how to make it more available. Habitat for Humanity is an example of a good multi-win model because it breaks the bonds of poverty while creating stability and equity for those served.
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I’ve written about simple mainstream solutions to what is called homelessness, and wondered aloud why this county continues to ignore or underfund best practices while paying handsomely for zero progress.
I’ve written about kids who go to schools with no books and Japanese Americans who were imprisoned but committed no crime. In most articles, poverty was a norm but powerlessness was a constant.
All these columns have examined how we, as a community and society, treat each other when we encounter one another through an asymmetrical relationship, that is, when one party has all the power and control. The asymmetry of the have-have-not relationship is always negatively influenced when ideology, especially political, social or religious doctrine, is attached to the services provided. And, when naked politics enter the service equation, providers simply sigh and watch as our goals fade into the future as political points are scored with real human lives. Exciting!
But the real lack of traction, at least locally, comes from a pseudo-progressive brand of social action that has literally spent millions of dollars in the last four years engaging systematically in non-best-practice activities with expected results. Recently learned or dusted-off redistributive social theory makes for a lively discussion, especially when there’s a bong, but when philosophical idealism takes funding away from real best-practice programming, that’s just elitism.
In the minutes of a recent HOME Consortium retreat it was written that “Commissioner Valenzuela feels that based on the growing number of homeless, we are not making a dent in reducing homelessness.” The same retreat concluded with a series of statements one of which was, “The HOME Consortium is relatively comfortable with its current process.” Being comfortable with a methodology that produces no positive change reminds me of the guy who’s stuck on the roundabout because he wants to make a left. Each lap gets him closer to where he was. We need to get unstuck.
A society, like the earth itself, functions best when its mass is in the middle. Pragmatism resides between stark realism and hazy idealism, and when we attach social responsibility to pragmatism we begin to explore a practice called altruism. Altruism is the action or belief that when you give without the desire for compensation or reciprocity you are giving wholly of yourself through an act of selflessness. Christ was accused of this type of reckless behavior.
However, altruism fails where ideological patronage encroaches, special interests dominate the conversation, and political alignment competes with best-practices. Altruism, allowed to flourish, is the win-win of a society that sees itself in a better future.
We owe it to ourselves to be that society.
In the spirit of the season I’ll leave you with this convenient, 10-word holiday-themed summary: When you give a gift, don’t wrap it with conditions.