Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A New Political Party?

How have we come to this? How have we Americans created such a dysfunctional government, and come to this point where we can’t even agree that it’s dysfunctional? If you listen to CNN, then switch to Fox, you would think that two entirely different realities are being described.

I am a lifelong, left-leaning voter, who can’t remember ever voting for a republican. I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and have never for a single moment given Donald Trump any credit or respect. Yet, I know that a lot of Republicans – even some of those who haven’t given up on Trump – are reasonable, caring citizens who want the best for our country. Some of them have probably never voted for a Democrat in their lives, and yet, we could probably agree on a number of things, like, for example, that everyone should have access to decent health care, and the ability to send their children to a school in which they have confidence. And yet, the politics of our time has turned health care and school choice into wildly divisive issues on which it seems nearly impossible to arrive at consensus.

Why is this? And why – despite how inflamed and partisan and sensationalized politics has become – do most eligible Americans not even bother to vote anymore? And why – out of desperation – have we turned our government over to a man with no political experience, whose substantial short-comings even his supporters acknowledge.

Increasingly, I’m beginning to wonder if the United States might manage what the French have somehow managed – to create and put into power an entirely new party.
Today, I was exposed to three individuals, who identify as either Republican, or conservative or both, whom I would gladly support as active partners in reshaping our country and government. Not because I’d agree with them on specific political measures that are currently on the political agenda. But because they each expressed powerful and reasonable ideas about our current predicament and what will be necessary to move us in a better direction.

I heard a bit on NPR this morning about Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, who has written a book about “The Vanishing American Adult”. What I heard from him that I liked are his thoughts about how our culture undervalues work and struggle, and how these things serve to build character and develop self-reliance. I liked hearing this because, as a lifelong social service worker, I have seen how our programs and institutions sometimes provide support and assistance to the needy to a point beyond where it actually helps them. It’s true that policies sometimes encourage dependence and discourage individuals from developing a healthy sense of responsibility for their own outcomes. The trouble is, in the language of our politics today, one is either for social services or against them. It is hard to find a middle ground that one can hold. Because our politics is so much about spin and over-hyping our own partisan position while totally discrediting the views of the opposition.

The second conservative voice I heard, was that of Peter Wehner, of the Ethics and Public Policy center, also on NPR. He argued that in the public/political forum, we’ve lost our respect for objective truth. We manipulate, we countenance lies and distortions, and we refuse to hold to a standard of truth for those we are allied with, nor to respect the truths of our opponents.

The third rightist voice I encountered today was that of Ohio Governor John Kasich, in a live debate with Sen. Bernie Sanders on CNN. Another voice of reason, Kasich argued that we must be willing to listen to, respect and consider the views, values and concerns of our opponents. He spoke of the pounding he’s received from fellow Republicans for failing to stand behind Donald Trump, but said, quoting John Kennedy, that “…sometimes, your party asks too much.” I love what Bernie said tonight, of course, but he spoke more directly to the hot-button issues that are so inflammatory these days: the total economic dominance of the 1%, the incompetence of Trump, etc. Kasich spoke more broadly about the divide, and how to bridge it, how to get people communicating with their opposites, to overcome the extreme partisanship behind our current crisis of government.

There was some mention at the end of the CNN “debate” of Kasich and Sanders sharing a ticket in 2020, and of the failure of the current two parties to meet the needs of the citizenry. I love that idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a Congress where debates took place with an eye toward finding the common ground for including the concerns of the opposition, rather than simply winning a vote? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if all the lying and accusing and spin that dominates Washington was replaced by dialogue aimed at cutting through rhetoric to get at the shared needs and values of the vast majority of us who simply want to live well and support others in doing the same?

How to bring such a state about? I think a big part of the answer must lie in directing less attention at the politicians and more at becoming responsible voters. We have to reject the politicians who seduce us into their zero sum games of good versus evil, us versus them, destroy or be destroyed. And we have to shut down the politicians who make prolonging a career more important than serving, not just their constituents, but the entire, diverse communities they are part of. We voters have to hold ourselves more accountable. We created this mess, and only we can fix it.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Lesson From The Homeless

Being homeless is horrible. It’s a state of being most of us could not fully imagine. It represents the absence of so many things that we take for granted, things we would need to lose in order to fully appreciate. I’ll cite a single example. We recognize that hunger can be a very pressing issue for this population, which it is. So why might a homeless person turn down a free meal? Because – as one of my clients told me when I offered to buy him lunch one day – there is a very limited availability of accessible and clean toilets for such as he, so he had to time his eating to ensure that he had a place to go when nature called. It’s a survival issue that had never occurred to me before – not simply access to clean toilets, but having to orient ones entire life around this access.

Homelessness is not pretty. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some positive aspects. What follows is no defense of homelessness, so please don’t read it as such. But personally, I haven’t yet experienced the situation that hasn’t offered something, if only a bit of wisdom about how or how not to live, of which I think this is a good example.

The homeless share. This is a generalization: there are certainly plenty of those that never share, as well as those that only take. But it holds quite often, particularly in comparison to the day-to-day habits of the general population, that the homeless share what they have with their fellows. This is especially true of the young homeless. They share meals, they share cigarettes, they share their drugs and their alcohol. They share their tents, their money, their bus tokens, their resources and contacts, their clothing and, on cold nights, maybe the warmth of their sleeping bags and bodies. Sometimes, they share the corners where they panhandle.  And very, very often, once they’ve found a place to live, they share that too.

Ironically, this home sharing presents a challenge to programs like the one I work for, Toronto’s Streets to Homes program. We employ a “housing first” philosophy, which basically means that instead of attempting to make our clients “housing ready” before setting them up in apartments, we aim to get them in a place, with a key and a lease, right away, then tackle whatever other challenges they may face. And wouldn’t you know it – it turns out that one of the traits that keeps many of our young clients “not ready for housing” is that they are quick to open their doors to others.

In our modern world, living isolated between four walls is the norm. We have smaller and smaller families, having evolved from the notion of multi-generational clans sharing living space, to the ideal of the nuclear family in its detached, self-contained house. Every step up the social and economic ladder means more space between us and our neighbors, and more private space even within the walls of the family home. Rather than sharing the village well with our neighbors, we aim for a status at which everyone in a household has an entire bathroom suite to him or herself. We aim for more walls rather than more companionship.

I suspect that most of us, as much as we long for the modern ideal of privacy and autonomy, sense that there is something not quite right about it. In our hearts – dare I say, our souls – we long to be more communal, to be more in the presence of others. But we’ve lost the taste and feel for that. It makes us uncomfortable to be too much around other people. With too much company and socializing, we become desperate for our own, private, sheltered space, so we can relax, take off our masks, be ourselves.

The homeless, by necessity more than by choice, unlearn this need for privacy pretty quickly. What a shock it must be to lose ones home and to go into a shelter for the first time, to find yourself sleeping on a thin mattress on a floor, with another body within a foot of you on every side! But I’ve learned that for those who’ve been homeless for awhile – especially those who avoid the shelters and make their encampments in parks and ravines and under bridges – it can be quite a shock to suddenly find oneself alone between four walls. They speak of how unnaturally quiet it is, how still and stale the air. And of how alone and isolated they sometimes feel. Sometimes our newly housed clients are unable to stay in their apartments at first. The enclosure is too much to bear. So they may retreat to a park, or find their “street family” in the parking garage and bed down with them.

Or, they’ll invite their street family to come indoors. Of course, they’ve been cautioned not to do this. By US. Yes, we the social workers caution our clients that they must give up the very beautiful and natural and human adaptation that has helped them to survive their weeks or years of homelessness: the capacity to share. They must give this up, or risk lose their housing. Maybe they are violating a condition of the lease. Or the comings and goings will create a disturbance. Their friends will being their dogs with them, or yell up to the window to be admitted at 2 am. The neighbors will complain. Ultimately, for the housing to survive, our clients have to become re-socialized. That street family wasn’t a real family, after all. Let those others get their own housing. Their own keys and leases. Their own private bathrooms.

And somehow, while something is surely gained…something else is surely lost. Yes, perhaps I’ve romanticized it a bit too much. Homelessness is not a pretty thing. But it does somehow, sometimes, in some ways, bring out some good, adaptive qualities. Sharing is one of them. I have no doubt that this sharing phenomenon arises in part because, paradoxically, it is somehow easier to share when there is very little. I once had a young client – a regular panhandler – who, whenever we were crossing the city together, always put some coins into the cups or upturned caps of the other panhandlers we passed. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I know what it feels like.” Maybe it’s the intimate familiarity with want, with need, with cold that fuels the generosity of the homeless. I’ve heard from several of my clients, when I’ve admonished them that they had to evict some of their “guests” or risk winding up back on the street, that they couldn’t turn away someone when it was cold or raining. They just couldn’t.

This is a dilemma that we work with: how to support these homeless without destroying the sense of sharing and community that has sustained them. I know that there are lessons in this.