“I Wonder What the Poor People are Doing”

We would sit on the ground or on the pickup tailgate taking a break from following the dogs to hunt quail. Even though it was fall, the Texas heat and humidity were still high, and pushing through the brush and weeds over rough terrain required some effort. Our gear was heavy, and the thick brush-resistant clothing didn’t help.

Lunch consisted of lots of Gatorade with Spam and Vienna sausages speared out of the cans with a pocketknife and spread on Saltines. Even though it had been in the cooler, the yellow cheese oozed moisture. Yellow mustard was a special addition to the feast. Invariably, at some point during our lunch, my dad would lean back, smile, stretch out his legs and say in a humorously self-deprecating tone, “I wonder what the poor people are doing.” Sweaty, on the ground, eating cheap food out of cans after a morning of wandering across the Texas plains, to us, it was the life of kings.

Actual poor people stand on the corner with a sign asking for money or food. They sometimes camp out in seldom-used public places, and line up at food kitchens or free clinics. They also exist in the shadows where we don’t go, or wander in search of a way to meet basic needs — food and shelter.

The poor have existed in every society and community, and it is considered one sign of a civilized society and most religions that they are taken care of by those better off. And the poor these days are not just the out-of-work hobo of old, but many working people that just don’t make enough to survive. Obviously, our governments, religious and charitable organizations try to do their part. However, there are some interesting different approaches to keeping the needy afloat that are taking place.

If you can’t afford a house or apartment, you are homeless and you have no safe place to sleep. Many have taken to living and sleeping in their cars, there is still a problem with where you can safely and legally park overnight.

One option is safe parking lots, as reported by CNN’s Dan Simon. “Santa Barbara opened one of the first safe parking lots in 2004. As the crisis of affordable housing has deepened, similar programs have popped up across California, including in San Diego, Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, which recently opened its first lot … The site is run by the nonprofit Safe Parking LA, which offers a ‘safe and stable place to park the vehicle, remain compliant with local laws, and have access to restroom facilities.’”

One woman commented on “overnighting in the Prius in a parking lot monitored by a security guard hired to keep watch over an impromptu neighborhood of makeshift shelters … “I don’t have to worry about being raped,” she said. “I don’t have to be worried about being robbed in the middle of the night.”

There’s still the issue of bathroom facilities. Reporter Lloyd Alter writes, “André Picard, writing for the Globe and Mail from Montreal, notes that public facilities are common in Europe, but almost nonexistent in North American cities, where people depend on the private sector, primarily stores and restaurants, to provide relief … Picard believes that public toilets should be infrastructure investments, and are as important as bridges and airports One problem with modern public bathroom infrastructure is that it is really expensive … But the urinal portion of it, the part that men need to pee in, is simple, straightforward and sort of open.”

Years ago, visiting Europe after college, I was amazed at the frequency of public toilets, pissoirs in France, scattered around public places. They were private, but not isolated, as though having to use a bathroom was a natural human function. In the U.S, we treat it like something beneath us.

Having a place for the homeless to sleep and bathe is a problem everywhere. Reporter SA Rogers notes, “With the age of big box stores waning, all those massive abandoned retail facilities could be transformed almost instantly into housing for the homeless using a variety of plug-and-play prefab elements.” We can “build entire complexes of supportive spaces and services within the empty shells of stores like Sears and JCPenney … The large, flat roofs of big box stores are ideal for rooftop gardening, recreation and solar panels, and many have outdoor plaza areas that could accommodate small pop-up shops and food carts.”

Contrary to what some believe, not all poor people are comfortable “on the dole.” They would like the ability to provide for themselves as much as possible. Food is one of the needs most difficult to meet without help. When I worked in Fairbanks, AK, a young local friend who had never been ‘outside’ (out of Alaska) was complaining about the poor people in New York City who he saw on TV, “Why don’t they just take their rifle and go out in the woods and shoot a moose? That’ll get them through the winter!”

Devita Davison talks about embattled urban Detroit having “open land, fertile soil, proximity to water, willing labor and a desperate demand for healthy, fresh food. All of this has created a people-powered grassroots movement of people in Detroit who are transforming this city from what was the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise … In Detroit, we have over 1,500, yes, 1,500 gardens and farms located all across the city today But I just believe that if we start strengthening the social fabric of our communities, and if we kickstart economic opportunities in our most vulnerable neighborhoods, it all starts with healthy, accessible, delicious, culturally appropriate food.”

Journalist Ilana Strauss reported on “Guerilla Grafters, a group that grafts fruit branches onto city trees. Grafting is an ancient farming practice based on the weird fact that trees will accept new limbs. If you tape a cherry branch to an ornamental tree, the branch will start growing cherries. For co-founder Haughwout, grafting is a way to feed people for free.” 

According to reporter Andy Corbley, “There’s a seven-acre farm in Atlanta where residents can walk into a forest, take a deep breath, and begin pulling crops right off the land for dinner … It’s one of a growing number of free-food forests cropping up in cities around the country, as citizens and organizations both public and private attempt to grapple with problems of hunger and food deserts.”

There are good ways to help those in need beside just making donations to worthy causes. We must make it so that even poor people can enjoy the dignity of helping themselves.

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

Additional information:

Lloyd Alter, Here’s A Great Public Infrastructure Investment: Public Toilets, July 31, 2017, Mother Nature Network, August 4, 2017 in Tree Hugger Daily News

Andy Corbley, This City Created the Largest Food Forest In the Country Where Anyone Can Pick Fruits And Veggies, March 2, 2021, Good News Network

Devita Davison, How Urban Agriculture is Transforming Detroit, April 2017, TEDTalks

SA Rogers, Re-Habit: Transforming Abandoned Big-Box Retailers to Housing for Homeless, November 2, 2018, WebUrbanist

Dan Simon, Living in Her Car, She Was Afraid And Harassed. Then She Found an Unexpected Refuge, December 23, 2019, CNN

Ilana Strauss, Why Guerilla Gardeners Want to Get Caught, August 29, 2018, Treehugger Daily News

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