Marti's Theory

Thy Neighbors

Posted on: October 20, 2012

I have a snapshot of two neighbors talking story at my friend’s fiftieth birthday party in Hana.  They don’t know each other all that well, but would be considered warm acquaintances, in the way that folks who live in a small town often are. There’s nothing unusual about that.  What IS unusual is that one is an international pop star and the other is a homeless guy. And no one thought twice about it.  We were probably as judgmental as any small town. It’s just that the simple condition of living under a tarp didn’t have a lot of stigma attached.  It just is. So for many years,  the idea of ‘homeless’ brought up images of either people I knew on a first name basis, or documentaries of displaced Hawaiians being forced to leave land they believed to be sacred and ancestral.  In other words, I vacillated between acceptance and guilt.  You know, that middle ground of ambivalence?

But then I moved to Lahaina and it all changed.

My place of employment is the UH Maui College’s Lahaina Education Center.  Located in a well-kept subsidized apartment complex, the Ed Center is a newly renovated, satellite campus that has been in existence for only six years.  It has state-of-the-art communication systems, services students of the densely populated west side of the island of Maui and is about a quarter of a mile from the popular Lahaina Cannery Mall.  Between the Ed Center and the Mall are a few acres of overgrown nothing.  Or at least that’s what I originally thought.

Not long after my move I learned that within all those scrub trees, weeds and red dirt was a teeming homeless population.  The complex manager complained about them, my assistant was afraid of them and it was pointed out to me that they used our water from an outside faucet.  I thought they were all being remarkable closed-minded and un-magnanimous.  So they drank water from our hose … so what?  They occasionally used the corner of the back of the building for shelter, so what?  I gladly looked the other way.

But within a few months my own “magnanimity” began to change a little.  One early Saturday evening I drove by the Center and noticed seven five gallon water jugs lined up against our wall, and a figure near the faucet.  I slowed down to get a better idea of what I was seeing and realized the owner of the water jugs was taking a full on shower!  I was startled, a little confused and not willing to deal with it at the moment.  So I kept driving.  Wait.  This is not exactly getting a drink of water. For the most part, I let it go.  But that vision planted the first seed of uneasiness within me.  Nevertheless, I moved on.

The other interesting development at the Ed Center was a large increase in the number of students in their 50s.  Having done a midlife career change myself, I was initially delighted to see this.  But I began to notice – these students seemed particularly careworn, totally clueless about their majors and not particularly interested in education in general.  They also were technologically inept – which surprised us, as they spend hours on end in the computer lab.  The only thing that really caught their attention was the process for receiving Financial Aid.  It finally occurred to us – these new students were our “Empty Lot” neighbors.  A few (okay ONE) is using the opportunity to actually improve her place in life.  She’s gotten the hang of computers, is doing well in her classes and – I believe – is now staying at Ka Hale A Ke Ola, a temporary housing resource center.  The others have either fallen of the radar, been asked to leave due to inebriation or extreme odor, or spend their time writing appeal letters explaining why they weren’t able to complete classes and why they qualify for having their financial aid reinstated.

Speaking of inebriated…

We’ve had other challenges.  Once we realized our water costs had spiked tremendously, we installed the faucet handles that needed a key to open.  This led to vandalism, which led to actually locking our back gate at night, which led to more vandalism. I finally stopped locking the gate and the water faucet.  It wasn’t worth it.  The most unnerving times were when we’d come to work to find nonsensical rambling letters tucked into our window frames.  One instance was after a security camera had been installed.  Checking the previous night’s recording, we watched the person who wrote the notes – pacing, writing, pacing, arguing with the air in front of him, pacing, writing, arguing.  I recognized him as a person who had been upset with me several days before.

By now that seed of uneasiness had sprouted into a little thorny shrub in the middle of my solar plexus.

Around this time we heard that the owners of the vacant lot was finally going to clear it out.  Completely, permanently.  My reaction was immediate and two-fold.  I felt great relief but also felt something else, a sort of weird low key anxiety.  Where would they go?  They’re people, and people need a place to be.  Not just to sleep, but to BE.  As my relief grew for myself, a nervousness grew for them.  Wow, had I fallen into the “not in my neighborhood” trap?  Yikes.

Soon, the clean out began.  Crews were brought in the clear out the “stuff.”  Large piles of what I consider to be junk began to appear.  Old cars, carts, frames, wire things that were no longer recognizable, rusted out appliances, a red Radio Flyer wagon.  The oddest item was a broken electronic treadmill.

That was months ago and the acreage has been cleaned, razed and being readied for whatever commercial endeavor that’s planned.  Our water bill is back to normal, I no longer have to respectfully move shopping carts outside of our area and we haven’t gotten scary notes in ages.

So part of me is relieved, for sure.  But there’s that subtext that keeps running through my brain, like that ticker on the bottom of the CNN screen:

Where did they go?  Where will they go next?  What’s the solution?

The apartment manager put it in perspective a little.  His matter of fact response is – if they were willing to pee in a cup, they’d have a place to stay (referring to our Resource Center).  True, I get it.  But still…

Again, things are much better at the Ed Center.  We even feel confident enough to install an outdoor utility sink, in anticipation of offering hands on type classes like painting or community gardening.

But I wonder about my former neighbors, and, although muted, the thorny shrub of uneasiness is still there.  I realized this yesterday, while filling out my annual Maui United Way pledge form.  When I noticed that Feed My Sheep, an organization that offers free meals to whomever needs them was on the list of United Way recipients, I immediately designated them as the organization to receive my whole donation for the coming year.  Does an action like that help?  Did it assuage my nagging, nonspecific guilt?  Only temporarily.  On both counts.

Here’s the thing…

It seems we have a number of problems for which we have not yet identified practical solutions and this is one of many.  So I sigh and push it to the back of my brain, to be re-examined on another day.

Image

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34 – 40

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12 Responses to "Thy Neighbors"

Great writing. I like the back and forth – the wrestling with the problem you came to. It feels very honest.

Mahalo, Joe. on a separate note, I’m missing Game Night.

AWESOME, Marti! You write from your gut and use your senses well to do so. I have very few notes and they are in red. Most are punctuation any others are stylistic differences.

Good job…Take Care, Elaine

notes in red? Can’t find them, but I’d love to see them.

Very thoughtful essay – I like it.

Thank you, my friend.

Thank you, Marti, for your deeply honest examination of this issue. The issue of homelessness and my role in being part of the solution troubles me as well. I perceive what I have and know I am blessed and called to share. But I cannot offer a “spare room” (metaphorically) to a homeless person because what I have been called to do would fall apart. I can give a little money here and there, but I too know full well it does not solve the problem nor help those most in need–those who do not or will not qualify for services from organizations. I feel the pain of having nowhere to BELONG acutely (because on a deep level this pain is universal amongst the body-bound). And just when it seems hopeless I remember three things:

1) I am not called to solve all the problems that I see. None of us can do that. I am called to be part of the solution in my particular way, aligned with my talents and resources. I am not called to “sacrifice;” I am called to live MY purpose. One thing I can always offer is the energy of love and a prayer of healing, and trust that I have been helpful.

2) I AM called to my own healing, so when my peace is disturbed by what I see and experience, it’s my job to introspectively examine it (as you have so eloquently done) to find my healing and forgiveness opportunities. Can I forgive myself for the times I have fallen (or walked) off the path? Can I forgive myself for addictions (not limited to drugs and alcohol) that have pulled my life off track? Can I forgive myself for the times I have expected others to provide for me while I do as I please? Can I forgive myself for “survival” activities–all the actions I have justified in the name of my own survival? Can I forgive myself for taking what I needed without asking? Can I forgive myself for blaming others for my pain? Can I forgive myself for angry, paranoid outbursts?

3) There are no victims here. There is underlying purpose to the lives manifested by all souls having an earthly experience. That doesn’t mean my help is not appropriate nor does it dampen my compassion. But for me, this understanding that we are not victims, no matter what appearances suggest, allows me to trust in the bigger picture. I can let go of my personal discomfort over the seeming unsolvability of this dilemma. I can trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding each soul having its highly specific journey based upon free will choices and the lessons the soul itself believes it needs to learn.

You pointed out that many among your homeless neighbors twisted help offered to elevate them out of homelessness for the purpose of maintaining a more comfortable status quo. This reminds me of how we cannot control the gifts we offer and how we must each CHOOSE to heal. Those darn cracks! I can’t build an impenetrable fence around all of them. So instead, I send my prayers of peace, love and light; strength, protection and healing to all who suffer throughout all time, naming today the homeless.

And I give thanks for your beautiful piece and beautiful self, Marti. ❤ ❤ ❤

Yes, I agree. When I write, I keep it true to what I believe, yet I also gear it towards a specific audience. Mahalo for your heartfelt response,

When you first showed me around the Ed Center and told me about the neighbors, the faucet with the key, etc. I felt uneasy for you. Instinctive reaction from growing up in cities. I’m glad they’ve been cleared out, but yes, unfortunately, they’re someone else’s problem now. The issues of homelessness are amplified when they happen on an isolated island. It’s all too easy to ignore when it isn’t your backyard.

As a follow up, I wanted to mention – the reason I ended with the Matthew quote is because there is an inherent sense of kindness to it.

Thoughtful essay, Marti. Grew up homeless several times myself on Kauai…back when we called it “camping”…and it’s not fun for children. Usually mental illness and substance abuse are playing a large part in why. Both are tough problems even when people are motivated to change.
Jesus said, “We will always have the poor” and we can all only do our part. For mine, I started a nonprofit that provides school supplies to needy kids: https://keikicupboard.com/
aloha
Toby Neal

My BF was one of the crew which cleared the land. I asked him the same question, “but where will they go?”. In Honolulu, each time the county enforced regs and rules over overnight camping, the homeless just moved to another area. The homeless population, like other residents, are comprised of many different types of people with different stories and circumstances.

I have had my moments of being nervous (the man who used to point and aggressively yell at someone imaginary on the streets of Waikiki) and other times instinctively knew not to be (the couple who “lived” under a freeway overpass near Kahala Mall who told me how beautiful my German Shepherd was each time we passed on our nightly runs). I’ve witnessed many instances of kindness (people buying two lunches and then passing one to the homeless person sitting outside) and cruelty (a woman yelling at a homeless man on the corner in Honolulu, unprovoked, about how he looks just fine to her so why can’t he get a job like anyone else). I was shocked at that latter and how someone could pass so much judgement without truly knowing anything about that person, other than the fact he was homeless.

I’ve had family members with mental illness and I’ve loved someone who didn’t have a dollar to his name. We don’t become non-human because we are without a home. What do they say about the measure of a society? We are to be judged by how we treat our members who are most in need.

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