Yesterday evening as I was walking home, I was mistaken for being a homeless person. The person doing the mistaking was another homeless person. It was dark except for the hazily crepuscular glow of the lithium streetlights, which means this man picked me out as homeless simply because of my dress and my gait.
I’ll get to the implications of this in a bit; first, perhaps, I should backtrack. By anyone’s judgment, I was likely looking more like a member of San Francisco’s vast tribe of street people (and park people, and bus people and supermarket people and plaza people and corner store people and subway-station people; the massive endlessly shifting tribe of individuals whose low incomes, diverse levels of what we might deem sanity, or anything else have driven them outside, shelterless. I was looking, in short, pretty haggard. I had just come back from a day of outdoor climbing (bourgeois activity as it is), wearing a torn polypropelene top and unidentifiable old pants that could have either been khakis or jeans. I was carrying a large backpack.
After returning from outdoor adventures, I can typically be found attired thusly as I make my way home. Never before, however, has anyone (and let alone a homeless person) assumed I was on the streets. The difference this time, though, was that I was limping.
Earlier that day, I had taken a short fall while on lead. Falling on lead is not fun; for any given distance you have covered above your last point of protection, you fall twice that distance, as you fall the distance you are above your point of protection + the same distance below, as your rope now swings below that protection point. If you are five feet above the last point of protection, you fall ten feet. Simple physics.
My fall was not so far or so bad, but was certainly surprising. I was perhaps three feet from the top of the climb, my right foot in a crack filled with slippery mud, reaching for a small pocket, when my foot slipped down the mud and away I went. My belayer caught and eventually lowered me; I didn’t feel any pain until I reached the ground, when I realized that standing on my right foot was quite painful. I performed a quick inspection; everything looked OK, with minimal swelling, so I continued climbing. My foot felt better in the climbing shoe than in my sandals, though; when it came time for the walk back to the car, and eventually for the walk back to my apartment, I realized that this foot was perhaps more painful than I had thought. By the time I started walking up Page street towards my home, I had developed a pretty pronounced limp.
I had just crossed Laguna when I stopped; I wanted to find a place to sit down and rest my foot before continuing, but I suddenly heard a shout behind me.
“Hey, you going to Andy’s?” A male voice, medium pitch, directed my way; noone else around. I turn and see a voluminously bearded, middlingly aged man shuffling my way at high speed. As he entered the glow of the streetlamp, it became clear that he was a street person (please ignore the fact that I’m making the same judgment here that I accuse him of making of me; in any case, mine turns out to be correct). His clothes were stained, filthy, olfactorily vibrant even to my insensitive nose. He was carrying a backpack of sorts, seemingly patched together from separate pieces of cloth, and a sleeping bag under his arm. His eyes were wildly animated, not in the way that means a person is simply following you, or intent; rather, signifying that the person is either following you manically, obsessively, with compulsive attention to each detail – either that, or that they barely hear or see or sense you at all and are somewhere deep inside their own head. These eyes were one of the two latter options, shiningly glowingly visible in the dusky gloom, owl eyes on a moonless night.
“Are you going to Andy’s?” he asked.
“Everyone’s going to Andy’s tonight. Big get-together. You coming?”
“Everyone’ll be there. Not too cold tonight, we can stay with him. Wait.” He looked closer at my face, my body, hyperactive eyes screening me suspiciously. “Where you going?”
“I’m going home,” I said.
“Oh, sorry man,” he said. “I thought you were one of us.”
We continued talking for the next couple of blocks as he elaborated: he was, in confirmation of my previous suspicious, homeless; he was going to Golden Gate Park, in which he usually stayed overnight in one of various encampments; he had been homeless for years, nut sure how many; he had assumed I was homeless by my appearance, backpack, and limp.
And finally, back to the limp: how does a variance in something as simple as gait immediately peg someone as homeless – or if not homeless, at least meriting a wide berth of avoidance on the part of Civil Society? What is our perception of the homeless, and of impoverished or marginalized people in general, if we identify them on the basis of physical (or, for that matter, mental) difference, handicap, or even deformity? For that matter, how do us educated elites (for I’ll include myself as falling squarely amidst that [self-perceived as broad but actually incredibly narrow] demographic) see these street people, those individuals increasingly marginalized from an ever-accelerating society? From the perspective of the wealthy and educated, who are these perceived outcasts, the homeless and the poor? What do they look like, why are they here, what have/haven’t they been doing?
Apparently, as evidenced by my experience walking home, as well as numerous conversations I’ve had during my short time in San Francisco, we unconsciously associate the marginalized and the poor with infirmity, whether of mind or body. Do we subconsciously assume that people are poor or outcast, then, because they are less-than-complete human beings in some way? What implications does this have for our nation’s policy? For the marketing strategies employed by corporations in their unending drive to sell us everything sellable on this earth? For the way we organize, structure, and operate our society and our communities? For the way we teach our children about the world? For the ability of all – poor or wealthy, of whatever color or ethnicity or religious faith or cultural background – to have access to the opportunity to change their place in the world?
The connection between poverty and infirmity is central to the argument for both 1) a large-government, social-responsibility-based Democratic political agenda; and, 2) a small-government, people-have-to-take-responsibility-for-their-own-shit Republican political agenda. It is behind pretty much all formal public political beliefs in this country, and likely behind most private ones as well. It determines our ultimate attitudes and actions towards the poor: as ones to be pitied, helped with pocked money, put who are ultimately doomed to failure, unable to change their social situation on a basic level – nothing we can do to help them, as they’re poor for a physical/psychological reason over which we have no control; all we can do is ease their suffering. We have no influence; we’re just the normalized innocent bystanders; normal citizens of an average society, normal people, nothing special, normal, but at least a part of something.
To this I say: how did this happen? Are these strands of though remnants from feudal European society, when plenty of people were poor but it was the wandering, mentally unstable beggars who were in a state of true, permanent destitution? Or is it a product of the American Puritan fascination with work, with production, with onwards striving, which pushes us to assume that people who don’t see things in the same light are drains upon society and deserving of being cast out? There are, of course, innumerable potential historical sources of this mindset. Which is not our problem: our problem, rather, is that it exists and is pervasive to the point where I get recognized as homeless and impoverished simply because of my limp.
For ultimately, what is poverty? This is a question to be discussed in another essay, but I would argue that the poor are those people that we see as poor, whether they are impoverished or not. For we are all too good at seeing infirmity and inability in others, when in reality we should be examining ourselves – and our inability to truly help those in need, those who ultimately have no need for our pity but have need of true aid.
To set the record straight, I’m not homeless (no thanks to the rental prices in San Francisco). But if I were, what would others think of me? What infirmity would they find in my body or mind? To what disabilities would I be retroactively ascribed? Why, ultimately, would I be poor?
And why does poverty need a cause inherent in the impoverished individual? In an increasingly stratified America, we need to rethink poverty, and ultimately class, as soon as we can. For if a major chunk of America is perceived as infirm, how can our country truly function as an e pluribus unum-ed whole? If we can barely stand to be in the same room together, how are we to work together to form a just, equal society?