Thursday, October 15, 2015

Journeying to the World of the 1%

According to the IRS, you are in the 1% of wealthiest people in the United States if your adjusted gross income is $343,927 per year and your net worth is at least $8.7 million.

There is another 1% that most of us don’t strive to be part of - the homeless. According to Census figures, at any given time, 1% of the United States population is homeless.

I don’t have any great travel pictures of this world and that feels fitting to me. Most homeless people are invisible as they move among us spending time in our public spaces. As the weather gets colder in our northern communities, they will move indoors to our stores and fast food places and our libraries. Many of the homeless can be identified when we see them walking with all their possessions but many others look just like you and me. Their condition is invisible.

This week I volunteered at the Interfaith Action of Evanston’s Hospitality Center. This is a great support in Evanston for homeless people. For a few hours each morning, homeless people can get a cup of hot coffee and a snack, some assistance from a job counselor, some help on the computer. I mind the entrance and remind people to sign out. If they want to stop to talk for a minute, we chat. I expect to feel their anger, but I don’t. Most people thank me for coming or tell me that I’m blessed. One young man thanks me for smiling at him. “It’s worth a million dollars,” he says. I wonder how long it’s been since he received a smile from anyone else to find my smiling at him so special.

Before we turn around, winter will be upon us. I can’t think of anything worse than being homeless in Chicago in January. Honestly, I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be homeless at all. Like most of us, I have been fortunate to have never experienced this horrid condition. Nevertheless, when I think about it, I feel the cold.

John H. Sibley, a Chicago artist, once found himself in the unenviable position of being homeless. In his book Being and Homelessness, Notes From An Underground Artist, he describes his experience visiting a museum. “Say, buddy,” a burly white security guard tapped me on the shoulder. “The museum will close in 30 minutes.”

“He didn’t see me. He only saw my old gym shoes. My wrinkled clothes. My battered fatigue jacket. He looked at my poverty as if I should be dragged from the museum and shot.”

Homelessness has to be a wretched experience. The causes of homelessness are complex and can’t be discussed thoroughly in a short column so I won’t begin to try. Nevertheless, I believe that our society is partially responsible for allowing this condition to continue. We all need to find a way together to end it.

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