ILLUMINATION
Published in

ILLUMINATION

A Dystopia of Our Own:

Feeling Bad about Feeling Good

We’re living in such a dystopia. All around my neighborhood are tent cities that weren’t there six months ago. This morning I took my dogs on their walk down by the abandoned school behind my house. I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet on the playground equipment. He moved a little, and I worried we had woken him.

Since I’m in the process of moving, I had a comforter and pillow at my house ready to go to some charity or other. As soon as I got home, I stuck the comforter and pillow in a trash bag (which he could use to keep them from getting wet later) and put a banana, a bottle of water, and some cookies along with five bucks in a bag.

I also threw in a pair of men’s slippers my roommate had left, thinking that one’s feet might hurt after walking the city all day. I’ve learned to be practical when giving to people who don’t have a safe, dry place to keep their things. The slippers might not be practical, but I couldn’t be sure, so I included them. If I’d thought more about it, I might have included a toothbrush and toothpaste.

I drove back over to the school and saw him still there wrapped in his sheet. Standing a few yards away I called out.

“Hello,” I said. A man who looked to be in his 40s sat up and looked at me.

“I brought you some things,” I said and crossed through the weeds. “It’s going to start getting cold at night. So this is a comforter and a pillow.”

“Thank you,” he said. “It was cold last night.”

“And some breakfast,” I said, holding up the other bag.

“I can take that pillow right now. I’m fixing to go back to sleep,” he said and then repeated with a grimace, “It was so cold last night.”

“Here you go,” I handed over the bags and caught a whiff of last night’s beer.

“Thank you, baby,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” I said and turned and left.

It felt good to help someone even a little bit, but I’d rather not feel good. I’d rather that my tax dollars went to make sure that no one ever had to sleep out in the cold instead of paying for a well fed conman’s golf trips. I’d rather that this man with his smile, who called me “baby” — regardless of whatever addictions he may have or misfortunes he may have encountered — could have shelter, running water, a toilet of his own, and some daily bread.

I’m no do-gooder. I wish I were. I know people who devote themselves to helping those less fortunate. There’s a woman I met through Nextdoor who has helped me unload a tent, a backpack, bedding, plastic drawers, a large cooler, plastic bins, my former roommate’s almost new sneakers (which I found in the trash) and my dead ex-husband’s clothes. She took them down to the nearby tent city and found new owners for all my discards.

I was glad to learn they could use them. And yet these small comforts are no substitute for a good social safety net. A comforter is not a bed. A pair of slippers is not a floor. A cooler is no Fridgidaire.

A woman I know named Kathy Izard used to work at a homeless center, helping to feed people and provide them with various forms of help. She thought she was doing something so wonderful and helpful through her programs. Then she met a man named who had been without shelter for many years until someone provided a home for him. Instead of telling her what a good person she was, he asked her, “Where are the beds?”

That question changed her life. It took years but she managed to build a facility for the “chronically homeless” here in Charlotte where I live. She describes her journey in a book titled . “Homeless” she says is just an adjective. It’s not who a person is.

The fact is that when we provide shelter to people, . That was just a few years ago. These days there’s no way the do-gooders can keep up.

So now we live in this dystopia where the rich don’t even bother to throw their crumbs to the poor. They’d rather thump their bibles and scream about socialism while people like you and me will try to help out in some small way, all the while preferring not to feel “good” when so many others are suffering.

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Trish MacEnulty

I’ve published novels, a memoir, and a short story collection. Now writing historical fiction. () Follow me on Twitter @pmacenulty.