Years had passed, and once again I met up with two smiling police officers who recognized me and asked, “Are you still plowing the ocean?” They were referring to my years addressing the needs of homeless people here. In Jesse Garza’s recent articles about alarming numbers of local deaths of people among the homeless, we witness vividly the toll of extreme marginalization.
In 24 years, I have known so many and I have seen so much. I have met the one who had most of his tongue removed by surgery. The one who slept in a Dumpster one cold night and woke up just in time to get out before being ground up. The one who believed he was still in the jungles of Vietnam. The millionaire whose wife divorced him and froze all his accounts. The one who had 12 diabetic blackouts a day. The shy one who could quote long Shakespearean passages from memory. The one who hadn’t eaten for three days but shared his sandwich.
Each situation is individual. It can’t be predicted who will be the butterfly to emerge, transformed, who will meet a tragic end. In most there is both a hunger for hope and a desire to give hope to others.
And I have met the people who care — including people from every religion, every economic strata. So very many good, caring people continue to come forward, some of whose level of compassion is comparable to Christians who rescued Jews from Nazi-occupied Poland; or to the heroic abolitionists in Wisconsin who trail-blazed the underground railroad. People eager to live their faith; who believe in the dignity of each human being; and are willing to be face-to-face front line, or to collect items, or to pray, advocate, knit, donate, or help behind the scenes. Despite comfortable lives they are hungry to build connections with brothers and sisters who walk in different worlds. And thereby, they bring a new dimension of purpose to their own lives.
I have met and listened to people who don’t care because apathy, like a drug, has crept in and prevents them from feeling real emotions. Or because self-serving hunger has taken over, or vicarious living via TV. Those who blame and degrade homeless people barricade themselves from an insight that “I cannot be who I am unless you can be who you are,” which is the universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity known as Ubuntu.
To dilute the tar pit of death in our poverty-plagued city, we need to kick the tires of existing programs. Programs either perpetuate humiliating living conditions and lifestyles or are dedicated to building new futures. We also need to examine the “safety net,” identify what is missing and create more solutions.
The new organization formed three years ago to continue my work, the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, purchased a permanent site on Dec. 30. Plans are underway to transform the five-story warehouse at 2461 W. Center St. (the 53206 Zip code) into a daytime sanctuary for homeless and at-risk adults. We will offer a maximum scope of life-building services citywide including a 24-hour refuge during extremely cold weather.
Besides more solutions, we need more “Schindlers” in Milwaukee. May his response be our response.
Oskar Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more.
Itzhak Stern: Oskar, there are 1,100 people who are alive because of you.
Schindler: I didn’t do enough!