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Homelessness in the High-End ‘Hood

Homeless Encampment

I consider myself mixed-class because my parents both came from poor or blue-collar circumstances, but the Air Force Brat life I grew up in has meant international taste buds and significant formal education, which led to relationships with people who have exposed me to the so-called finer things of life.

I love classical music, but I have to have my funk and salsa. I love art: art shows, museums and dabbling in photography and different crafts. That crosses over to my making my own limoncello from the family recipe of a friend whose Italian family has had orchards for generations. I make my own coffee liqueur. I am a foodie: chilled cognac and the European pastries that were introduced to my brothers and I by our Portuguese uncle are not the things some expect someone like me to like. You better believe that I have to cook up my black-eyed peas and cornbread, too, though. Mixed class (and multicultural,) I said.

I like expressive, creative fashion but not a “follower of fads.” I’ll wear something if it appeals to me and looks okay, regardless of who the item is marketed at. Labels and designers irrelevant. Ageist rules about what I ought to be wearing cast to the wind.

Intersectionality issues operate in all of us. As for all who work in human services, mine are the filter through which I see gentrification and its effect on the human condition. I have been a social worker with champagne taste and a beer budget. It’s like that. But this combo of things gives me an eye and an ear for things others might miss, clearly a plus and a minus.

The work I’ve been doing as a volunteer and now as a career got started in the 70s, with an openly feminist social studies teacher when I was a junior in high school. One can’t “un-see” what’s been seen. When I go anywhere, the binoculars are on and the assessment gets going, whether I am trying to look for issues or not. They jump out at me.

For the first time, I was walking by the new mid-century influenced “cube” architecture with my dog down a rapidly gentrifying area that is on the edge of a warehouse district. I don’t live there. I volunteer at the animal shelter nearby. It was the first time I had walked down that particular street. A shop caught my eye. The first thing that caught my eye was the 50% discount rack outside one shop’s door. In any store, the clearance is where you can get what the fashion followers wear without dropping all that change, right? “Squeeze a dollar ‘til it hollas”. It’s a good trick to have up your sleeve if you like quality on a beer budget.

The dress was simple, summery- a soft, bluish grey and due to be on sale since it was warm October day. I searched for the price tag, attached in the seam, buried way down the side of the garment. The price for the short, lightweight, sleeveless dress that was blowing slightly with the wind? $179.00. I did the math and put it back. “Oh, yeah. It’s silk,” I said to myself. “Darn.” Knowing it was a great deal, given the fabric, and actually having the money to buy it are two very different things.

On the other side of the street, as I circled around for my return to the car, there was a very dark-skinned black man, with the matted scruffiness of homelessness, rocking back and forth in a wheelchair. His empty eyes glanced at me when I asked him, “Do you need lunch?"

He dropped his head, looking at his knees and shook it, “No.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. He nodded. I was trying to decide if he was saying it because it was true or because I’m black. Shame for not being the black man he’s supposed to be by our community’s standards?? It broke my heart. In driving through the area in question, I don’t see black people often, which is odd for the area in general. Gentrification does that.

I looked around at the multicultural murals, some dripping with bird poo. I’m thinking, “Do the people who walk by here see the irony of the sparkling cube architecture, a homeless disabled person, a tent encampment, multicultural murals (beautiful, but not perfectly maintained) and an almost $200 dress in the same street?” In my analysis of these issues I find it one more reminder that when one has a life that is comfortable and relatively effortless, the tunnel vision is pretty long. Here is another place where understanding intersectionality plays a part.

Unfortunately, that tunnel vision can apply to people who do hold other disadvantages. Take the wealthy gay man, the wealthy, cis-gender person of color, the cis-gender woman who is heiress and cousin to those listed as the wealthiest in the world, the elder homeowner of color in a formerly poorer gentrifying area, whose children or grandchildren will benefit grandly from the skyrocketing of the paid-off house’s value.

But, as far as the granny with the valuable house, will she have sophisticated financial advice, so she’ll know how to deal with the developer, whose job it is to get the price as low as possible? I know of one situation where the granny made a deal with a developer, then found out that although she made what seemed like a lot of money, 1) It was not as much as the property was actually worth and 2) It wasn’t enough to buy another house in the neighborhood. Whose ethics were at work here? Whose fault is it that she didn’t know to check on what she was told by the party who bought her house?

As we approach solutions for the grand challenges and failures that this United States Experiment has presented, our solutions must be fully informed by the kind of lenses that see truth, worn by those willing to put all the intersectionality on the table. Otherwise, we miss the costumed impostor. If we can build relationship with community members who are willing to see everything and still create balance and equality, we will waste less time. The NIMBY folks continue to create reasons not to support the interventions that will address homelessness and to be able to see the difference between gentrification projects vs. community improvements. The NIMBY people might not always be who we think they are. Many yearn for "The Haves'" glimmering stuff, but don't see the slippery slope towards insensitivity to the plight of others.

The first person to assess? Ourselves. Then we can look at where we need to evolve, so something can change faster than this snail’s pace we are on at this moment.

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