“Mike and I are going to be checking out an encampment on the Algiers Levee tonight.”
I inserted this into the general goodbye-banter between two people who’ve grown familiar with each other – amidst such standard stuff as “good night”, “be safe” and “see you tomorrow”. I assume she had no idea why I was mentioning where I was going. I assume she didn’t know it had to do with fear, and the desire for someone to know where I was going just in case I didn’t turn up at the expected time the next day.
We normally walk through abandoned buildings. After surveying more than 1500 of them since January, they’ve become as normal to us as barrooms (we haven’t quite been to 1500 of them since January). But these river-side encampments (we now have 3) just look a little too rural for me to be comfortable with… a little too “Deliverance.”
This all got me to thinking about fear, ours and that of the community in general.
When we talk with people about what we do – going into abandoned buildings searching for the hidden homeless – we tend to get one of two responses. One is praise for going above and beyond in responding to human need and suffering. Personally, I think this praise is usually a little overdone, and in reality, we’re pretty normal people – no better or worse than the average – who happen to love doing a unique job. The second response is also overly dramatic, but it is the one that I want to focus on: “You guys are nuts!” or “You’re gonna get shot or stabbed with an HIV infected needle”.
Maybe we are nuts, and maybe we will meet a grizzly end. But I doubt it.
For me (I won’t assume to speak for Mike or any other outreach worker) what we do is not based on a brotherly love for fellow man. It is simply the culmination of what happens when one was relatively idealistic and utopian at the age of 20, but has fallen to a much more jaded and pragmatic position by 28.
I still hold some of my more idealistic beliefs. One of these is the idea that in most situations, so long as lines of communication are clear, we need not fear our fellow human beings. I don’t believe in an evil nature (nor do I believe in a good nature) that is inherent in the human condition. People are people, and unless you give them a reason to harm you, they generally won’t.
I could be wrong, but the evidence so far appears to support me on this. We’ve met over 200 people living in abandoned buildings at this point. None have harmed or threatened us. Most say thank you just for the simple fact that we showed up instead of passing by and ignoring them. The worst encounter we’ve had was with a man who told us to fuck off and then accepted our business card in case he changes his mind later. Maybe someone will finally attack one of us when we go back out tonight, and maybe we’ll be hurt. Without wanting to sound cavalier about it, that will only be one person out of 200+. With ratios like that, I feel safer at work than I do driving home.
In short, I hope our work is a testament to the fact that our culture is overly fearful of both (1) homeless people, and (2) of other humans in general. I hope that based on our success at repeated peaceful interactions, the basic fear that accompanies outreach work might ebb somewhat. You really can’t do this work if you fear the clients, and (sadly) many in our profession do.
Oh, and what about my fear last night? Completely unfounded. Nothing more than the result of being in an uncomfortable setting. We met two very nice men, both homeless for more than a year, both with disabling medical conditions. Both said thanks for coming by and invited us back the following afternoon to open cases and start paperwork on them.
As it turns out, it was my little reminder that sometimes I’m overly distrustful and fearful, too.