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    t3 Threads: Changing the Conversation

    On the Streets, in the Storm

    1/28/15 1:00 PM | Collin Whelley | Poverty, Homelessness

    In cities and towns around the country, individuals and families seeking shelter and safety out of sight, down alleyways, in abandoned buildings and tunnels, under bridges, on crates in drainage pipes, on our sidewalks and at our very feet have become commonplace. We call this “homelessness,” yet this term is empty because it does not transpose onto our hearts the reality of suffering and resilience that take place. Empathy requires context.

    On Tuesday January 27th, as the blizzard went on and most were inside keeping warm, I was reflecting on Jeff’s words and decided to take a walk in the snow. This is what I found.

    Monday night during winter storm Juno, in the shadow of one of Boston’s wealthiest neighborhoods, someone stayed behind this dumpster.

    A person's camp behind a dumpster, Back Bay

    In cities and towns around the country, individuals and families seeking shelter and safety out of sight, down alleyways, in abandoned buildings and tunnels, under bridges, on crates in drainage pipes, on our sidewalks and at our very feet have become commonplace. We call this “homelessness,” yet this term is empty because it does not transpose onto our hearts the reality of suffering and resilience that take place. Empathy requires context.

    “Through experiencing the ‘other’…the uncertain becomes fixed and known and thus less threatening. But more than this, we learn to interact with otherness to secure a sense of wellbeing as we move through urban space” (Bannister, Fayfe & Karns, 2006 p.932). In the safety of our homes and offices we separate ourselves from the reality of those living on our streets. Without including the suffering of others in the creation of our own conceptual reality, we remain blind to collective existence, our wellbeing severed from others’ suffering.

    Right now the shelters are full, the alleys are filled with snow, and those experiencing homelessness are forced to do what they can to survive.

    Snow-covered blankets behind a dumpster, Back Bay

    When I found this camp, I felt a familiar feeling of dread. This was followed by the pang of reality and anger. The dread comes as a sense of foreboding of what I might find next. The pang of reality is the recognition of what exists in front of me. And then anger. This is what society allows to happen. This is what inequality looks like. This is what happens when rents are too high, when jobs leave town, when redevelopment displaces residence. This is what our current neoliberal economic model promotes.

    And I am a member of the system I criticize so eagerly. And as a member, what is my part in this? Guilt. Shame. They are as unproductive as they are difficult to shake. Yet, they seem as real as the blankets lying in front of me.

    Now, with this warm coffee, in this warm apartment, and even having the opportunity to write this post, I only hope that this person or persons found safety and warmth.

    “We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us." -- Dorothy Day

     

    Images by Collin Whelley, Back Bay, Boston MA, January 2015

    Collin Whelley

    Written by Collin Whelley

    Collin Whelley, a Senior Analyst at the Center for Social Innovation, has been working in the field of homelessness and poverty for more than 10 years. From a street outreach worker to an academic researcher, Collin has been searching for new ways to address issues related to homelessness and poverty. Collin's current interests include program and best practice implementation and evaluation as well as the politics of social justice.

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