Friday, May 28, 2010

"You Gotta Do, What You Gotta Do"

I really don't feel like writing this column today.

 Working on it makes me feel sad, and angry, and helpless. But I know that I'll feel even worse if I don't do it; because, just maybe, this story will change some people's perception of poverty, and will help them better understand the plight of the working poor.

 I've written and spoken a number of times about the fifties being the most difficult years for those who are homeless, or are on the brink of homelessness. It's a time of life when it becomes harder to find and hold onto jobs; and it's the time of life when health begins to decline, while social security and medicare are still years away.

 Bob Hanzek is one of those fifty-plus people; who, in recent years, has been stuck in poverty. Lately, it's been all downhill for Bob--job-wise, housing-wise, and health-wise--and now comes word from a mutual friend that Bob is in a coma in Fort Harrison Hospital, in Helena, Montana.

 This is the third time I have written about Bob. He inspired a column that appeared last August 19 ("From Glad To Sad"), a couple of days after a chance morning meeting in Billings.

That day he was on his way home after working all night at the Montana State Fair. His job through the run of the fair was cleaning stalls--which means he worked all night shoveling manure. He was tired, very tired, when we talked; but he was thankful for the work.

 He had been laid off from his last full-time job a while back, and his unemployment had run its course, and he was being threatened with eviction from his rented room. And there was something else. He was in poor health, including a bad heart, which made the manual labor he was performing risky, to say the least.

Bob didn't pass along his circumstances in a complaining way; he just seemed to appreciate the opportunity for conversation. What I remember most from that brief morning encounter, was a comment said with a faint smile, "You gotta do, what you gotta do".

 A couple of months went by before I saw Bob Hanzek again. It was during another stop in Billings to use the Parmly Library facilities. My early morning arrival left me with a little spare time before the library opened, so I stopped in at the Rainbow, where a quarter gets you a good cup of coffee with the bonus of good conversation.

Bob was there, looking, as before, very tired; but just like before, he was in a thankful state of mind. He was working again. He was at the fairgrounds again. And he was cleaning stalls again.

This time, it was only a one-week gig, for the annual Livestock Exposition; but, as Bob said, "It was something". This second meeting was cause for a second column about Bob, which appeared October 18 ("Sunday Morning Coming Down")

. I tried, through Bob's story, to show that there are those who are stuck in poverty through no fault of their own; that there are those who are without regular employment, through no fault of their own; that there are those who will take and tackle any job they can find.

Now, for a third time, I am writing about Bob; and yes, I am saddened by what has happened to my friend. And yes, I am angry that folks in their fifties can be left to struggle and suffer in poverty, in this, the wealthiest nation in the world. And yes, in many cases--like Bob's--I feel helpless.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Meanness Ain't The Answer, Man!"

Hank was mad, as he blurted out those words, while obeying the officer's order to, "Move on". Hank had stopped to rest on a bench in front of a restaurant on the corner of Simonton and Flemings Streets, in Key West. The officer was responding to a complaint by the owner of the restaurant. I was passing by at the time, and Hank was right. It was pure and simple, just an act of meanness. The restaurant was not yet open; so there were no customers to disturb or offend. The weather was hot and steamy, making an occasional stop for rest, absolutely necessary for an old-timer like Hank. I've thought of Hank often the last few years--especially whenever someone displays unprovoked meanness toward the homeless. Hank's words came to mind again this week, as I learned of the meanness incurred by a homeless camper in Anchorage Alaska. Laurie Kari, of Family Promise, sent me an article that appeared in the Anchorage Daily News last Wednesday. The story is about a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of Dale Engle, a 52-year old veteran. Last summer, the Anchorage powers-that-be passed legislation that permitted the police to clear out homeless campers on as little as twelve hours notice. Dale couldn't vacate his campsite soon enough, and so everything he owned was confiscated. He lost his tent and his sleeping bag. The personal items that he lost included his military ribbons, and a spruce checkerboard that had been handcrafted by his father. The story hit home, and on impulse, I called Lisa Demer, the reporter who wrote the story. She told me that Dale Engle is still homeless, and Lisa said something else that is most important. Dale Engle is not a bum. He takes day labor jobs whenever he can. So, what did those powers-that-be accomplish? Dale is still in the area. Dale is still homeless (and all the poorer because of the legislation). And Dale is still a decorated veteran who works when he can. Like old Hank said, "Meanness ain't the answer, man!"