Old Ways/New Ways Part 9


On January 1, 2000, the homeless population in the United States mushroomed. People were stranded all over, sometimes with only the clothes on their back and a couple of suitcases, maybe a car emergency or 72 hour kit or two. Shelters were immediately opened in churches and schools, but the experience was tremendously dislocating for all concerned.

McCoy School in my neighborhood was one such shelter. It was an old building, fortunately, built solidly in a previous era, chimneys still in place. The place was kept warm with a combination of propane, kerosene, and wood, but the food -- especially after the first week when the MREs ran out -- wasn't anything to write home about.

The psychological effects of this were immense, especially on those caught in holiday traveling. Many of these people had given no credence at all to warnings about problems in the year 2000, and were not accustomed to inconvenience and disaster on this societal scale. Their cell phones, portable computers, and credit cards, wouldn't work, they couldn't buy gas, airplanes weren't flying, and many of their cars were down for the count anyway from one of the many bugs that turned out to afflict automobiles. At the McCoy school, I met bank and university presidents, politicians, and various other members of the A list, who now were seeking refuge in a public grade school in a part of town they probably didn't even know existed on December 31st. Most were hundreds of miles away from family and home, and had no prospects of getting there in the foreseeable future, and no way to contact their people to let them know what was going on.

McCoy School had a cross-section of American society, and they all had one thing in common: their status was "homeless refugee". Fortunately, there were poor people among them ("fortunately" for the upper class, not necessarily for the poor) so there was an opportunity to share "poverty skills" with the New Poor. The average upper class person in the United States doesn't know much about how to go about being poor, so it was a true culture shock.

As January progressed, the numbers of homeless people swelled. By mid January, the Holy Family Catholic Worker House was feeding 750 people a day, primarily a porridge made from cracked wheat and soybeans, plus raisins, powdered milk, and oil or margarine. Before January 2000, a big day was 250. There were similar long lines at all the other soup kitchens, and virtually every church in the city had opened a new emergency feeding center. They were feeding not only the people seeking refuge there, but others who had access to a heat shelter (usually a neighbor's house) but had no food, or they had run out of food.

The Harvesters organization, which in the old days supplied pantries and soup kitchens with the excess of the cities' restaurants and markets, continued to supply food throughout January to pantries and soup kitchens, although increasingly it was wheat and soybeans, and deliveries were only made once a week. Many people gave them gasoline and diesel, which enabled this ministry to continue, as well as food. Harvesters remembered the large terminal grain elevators along the Missouri River first of all, in fact, the general manager of one such operation was a volunteer, and was quick to open the doors and fill up the Harvester's trucks with wheat, soybeans, and other grains. There were millions of bushels of such grains within the city limits, so it was an obvious solution for the entire region. The problem of course was getting it around, but that was managed, just barely, but it was managed. Typically, all of the soup kitchens in a given area would send people to a central distribution point, and then often the food was hand carried back to the soup kitchen.

Many factors contributed to the homelessness problem. Some landlords evicted people, usually illegally. The courts were open, but they were operating under a special martial law, and were concentrating on criminal matters, with all civil cases, including legal evictions and foreclosures, put on "hold" for the duration. What would happen is that a landlord would show up with some toughs and put the people right out on the street. This continued to the end of January, as few people in the poor part of town were able to pay their rent (government benefits such as section 8, TANF, and food stamps did not arrive in January 2000. After a family froze to death after being put out on the street, the military and the police started to arrest landlords for making such evictions and the practice stopped. Landlords either abandoned their properties or worked out new deals with their tenants. Generally, the good landlords came out in a positive way, because they already had good relationships with their tenants. The slumlords, however, typically lost everything. In this new world, being a jerk was not a positive survival value, and jerks who got people killed were seen as criminals.

Other people couldn't heat their dwellings, and thus were forced into public shelters or (as happened on Oakley Street) found refuge with neighbors. Some people suffered fires -- with all the improvised heating arrangements, there were more house fires than normal, and without the ability of fire departments to quickly respond or water pressure to fight the flames, most such fires completely destroyed the dwellings. There were some serious apartment fires, which hastened the exodus from the big apartment buildings.

Thus, by the first of February most emergency shelters were packed. They were generally orderly, the big ones usually had a small police or military unit attached, and people were cooperative. All of the shelters were equipped with CBs, and most managed to have radios tuned to the remaining stations, especially short wave. There was a certain amount of huffing and puffing the first week, but that disappeared quickly. A lot of high stress corporate survival strategies (e.g. back-stabbing, non-cooperation, winning through intimidation, extreme cynicism, radical selfish autonomy/individualism, whining/pouting/tantrums, being a general jerk etc.), became sudden liabilities. Big liabilities, as in, you could get put out of a shelter, so people behaved, not just out of fear, but rather because most people are better than most people are willing to concede.

We always worry about what "other" people are going to do -- that is, we are not worried that "we" will riot and rape, but rather that "they" may riot, turn lawless, act violently, and be criminal. As it so happens, however, most of the possible "theys" are really just people like you and me, and certainly we aren't lawless rapists, rioters, and criminals, even when we got a bit on the hungry side. In some respects, civilization turned out to be very fragile, but in other respects, it turned out to be more durable and stable than we thought. We had made the mistake of assuming that our technology and material goods were our civilization, when in fact, they are only parts of who and what we are. We are a clever and industrious species, and when one set of tools and toys was taken away from us, we immediately started building new tools and toys, and perhaps this time we are learning something from the mistakes we made in the old days.

The new important survival values were the abilities to get along with others, to cooperate for mutual support and security, to improvise and be creative, to put up with inconvenience and problems without undue complaining, to see both the long and short term, to break out of existing envelopes and modes of thought in favor of new thinking about the new problems of life, the universe, and everything, and to see the spiritual realities that are far more stable than any mechanical construction.

All of the shelters organized program activities; given the eclectic groups that ended up in most places, there was staff for a pre-k through university school, plus all kinds of specialized skills that could be shared or used for the benefit of the group. Self-help groups organized and met regularly; Alcoholics Anonymous and Narc-anon were there, Mass was celebrated, Bible studies were organized, and people taught Buddhist meditation and detachment from the material world, pain, and suffering. Babies were born and people got married. In short, people started to put their lives back together again, adapting to their new circumstances.

Many soup kitchens that were not equipped with grain grinders improvised them from metal water pipes (usually three bound together, the grain was ground by pounding and grinding with the ends of the pipes, very labor intensive, but there was a lot of labor), or they used sausage grinders to grind soaked soybeans.

Some of these homeless people, perhaps sensing immediately that something was up beyond the traditional electricity blackout, went out and "homesteaded" parks, and other out of the way public spaces. There was so much going on that the police and the military left them alone. Typically, these people would scrounge tarps, sheet plastic, plywood, poles (utility poles, trees, etc) and tires and build earth sheltered homes that when heated with wood, were actually quite cozy, if unconventional in appearance. People from churches and community groups visited and provided expert advice about issues such as sanitation. New little villages and neighborhoods were born.

We helped one "improvised" family (a number of single travelers who met in a shelter and decided to hook up as a survival household for the duration) build a nice and very cozy home. Here again, there were lots of experts present, but even so we managed to get the place built. Swiss Family Robinson had nothing on us northeast Kansas Citians! As spring bloomed, there was a mass exodus from the homeless shelters in schools and churches in favor of this kind of construction, plus many occupied abandoned properties and structures. There were a lot of new people in our neighborhood, and many of them were living in unconventional dwellings.

In a disaster situation, people often fall into a "monkey-see/monkey-do" behavior. If there is a line waiting to ask for necessary supplies, it is not unusual for people to ask for exactly what the person in front of them asked for, even if the first person's list has items that aren't needed by the second person (an extreme example would be the first person being a woman asking for sanitary napkins, and the second person being a man and asking for the same thing). This kind of behavior was often observed in homeless situations in the old days, and thus it wasn't surprising to see it happening in these new and stressful circumstances. It has some advantages, however, as the good example set by those who exited the shelters early to literally take control of their circumstances by building improvised housing on public lands, was followed as the weather got a little better by virtually all of the others in the shelters.

This same kind of creative thought and smart work went into other things needed by these refugees. Plastic baggies were tied on the outside of socks before putting on shoes, to help keep feet dry. Blankets were modified into ponchos -- which, by the way, were de rigeur for post-millennium bug winter fashion. Everybody was wearing them. #10 cans were fashioned into stoves, ovens, and buckets. Wire coat hangers were useful for a thousand things, not the least of which was making handles.

Thus, as the year 2000 progressed, the homeless problem resolved itself through poor people being empowered by their circumstances to help themselves. This isn't what most people thought about when they thought about the year 2000. But a number of "structures of sin" that operated to keep poor people poor in the old days disappeared, and thus people were free to use creativity and hard work to make their lives better. Many people experienced a larger return from their personal effort or work after January 1st than they were receiving under the Ancien Regime. It was different work than they were doing before, but like the fast food workers who became respected and skilled weavers, honest, hard, and smart work was rewarded with success in the new world.

Of course, people's definitions of "success" were radically changed, and not a moment too soon, if you ask me.

(c) 1998 by Robert Waldrop

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