Hand-me-down People—Writing and Activism

I’m taking a break from my series of posts to ponder a problem that has grown progressively worse in the last several decades.

Way back at the dawn of time—or at least at the dawn of my sojourn as a serious writer—I was eavesdropping on a conversation between my husband, Jeff, and my father-in-law about something my FIL had just read in the newspaper. A California coastal town that was a major tourist destination (or at least a tourist pass-thru on the way to points south or north) had a problem with indigents. That is to say, homeless people.

It seemed these people were annoying the tourists by sleeping in public places, living out of cars parked in public lots, and panhandling. The enterprising town leadership found a solution to the problem: they declared transience illegal. They would have the police scoop up people caught red-handed in the act of being homeless and transport them to the outskirts of town—near the interstate—and drop them off.

Voila! Problem solved.

To say this cavalier attitude toward human suffering made me angry is like observing that the Hulk has a little anger management problem. But I had no political clout, I didn’t live in the locale in question, and I knew that merely contacting my congress-critter would not be enough. So, I did what any red-blooded fledgling fiction writer would do. I wrote a story about it. I renamed the coastal town and worked out my own solution to homelessness that evolved out of the efforts of concerned citizens to keep the homeless from having insult added to injury.

Illo. by Janet Aulisio

I didn’t write about homelessness as a cause. I wrote about people. I collected stories of  real human beings who were homeless for a variety of reasons so I could do it realistically. I wrote about Stewart who lost his job as an engineer, and Loucette who lost her grip on reality, and Annie Lee and her kids who lost a husband and father. I wanted whoever read my story to read about real people.

I was very angry, so the result of all this was a 19,500 word novella — “Hand-me-down Town” — which became my first professionally published work of fiction when Stan Schmidt purchased it for Analog science fiction magazine in late 1989. His response to critics who complained that the story had no visible hard science it—”Sociology is too a science!”

I got letters about the story. The two that stand out were from a psychologist and a nurse who both worked with homeless people daily. They thanked me for “getting it right” and for showing real people rather than stereotypes.

I also got commentary from people who didn’t believe a word of what I’d written. The comments that stood out came from a entrepreneur and CEO of a small up-and-coming high-tech business. “It was a great story,” he said. “But of course, homelessness people are nothing like that, really. They’re all druggies and alcoholics who are homeless because they either want to be or because they can’t keep their act together.”

I kept my reflexes under control and told him about the research I’d done and the feedback I’d gotten from people who actually worked with homeless people every day. “These stories are real,” I said. “The reasons these people are homeless are real reasons. This is what their lives are like. The only really fictional part is my solution.”

He simply refused to believe me. No more did he believe that he, personally, bore any responsibility for these people. They were part of the SEP field (Someone Else’s Problem).

All this came back to me when a fellow Book View Café author, Steven Harper Piziks (aka “Igor”), blogged about his homeless son, who is terribly afraid of what will happen to his fellow homeless people when Ann Arbor, Michigan shuts down a homeless camp and redirects the residents to its already over-loaded system of shelters. The local administration has promised housing, but everyone who works in the system knows there isn’t enough to go around, especially not with budgets being cut and the fallout from the recession falling most heavily on those with the fewest resources and support networks.

And that, in a nutshell, is what “Hand-me-down Town” is about—support networks. To paraphrase a famous old Pogo comic strip. “We have met the support network and it is us.”

And by “us” I mean whatever and whoever it takes to solve the problem of homelessness and all the other societal problems we have unwittingly generated or perpetuated. Our government, some fellow said (I think it was that vampire hunter dude, Abe Lincoln), is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. The significant word here is “people”. That’s all of us—unless, of course, some of us are weasels, or asparagus, but I’m pretty sure there are no weasels or asparagus reading this blog.

This is not a political issue, by the way. It has no party affiliation, no denomination, no gender, no race, no ideology. It is a human issue. It’s about people, not politics, and those who try to make it about politics do so at our peril. Whether you are a person of faith or not, the risk to society of failing to deal humanely and adequately with this and other societal diseases is unacceptably high both materially and spiritually.

The activists who wrote to Analog about “Hand-me-down Town” said that the solution I proposed was not as fantastic as its appearance in a science fiction magazine might imply. And I’ve been jazzed to discover that there have been real housing programs that use my basic idea on a smaller scale.

If you’re interested in reading “Hand-me-down Town”, please follow this link to the Book View Café bookstore where you can read the story for free. And if you feel so moved, please consider donating funds or time to your local homeless shelter.

O son of man! If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee, and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.—Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf

‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.‘ — Christ, Matthew 25:39-41

(Also posted at www.commongroundgroup.net.)



Hand-me-down People—Writing and Activism — 7 Comments

  1. That was a wonderful story. I hope the similar projects in the real world prosper and grow and do just as well as Serendipity did.


  2. Thanks for reminding me of that! I read it when it came out, which is like another era now, and thought it was a neat idea; now I intend to download it, and mention it (if I can ever get onto Blogger!) on a blog I lurk on.

  3. Thank you for blogging about this, Maya. Every word is true. It’s easy to dismiss homeless people as deserving their status due to their own faults–it gives us an excuse to turn a blind eye and decide we don’t need to do anything. But every homeless person is a PERSON, and how far away from that is each of us? It’s very simple to help these days, though. If you don’t feel comfortable giving money to people directly, anyone with a debit card can give a few dollars to an organization that helps the homeless on-line. You don’t even have to go anywhere! A dollar buys a can of food. Five dollars buys an injection of antibiotic. Ten dollars buys a blanket. Twenty buys a coat.

  4. Homelessness is a lot like health insurance issues–it only becomes a problem for a person when things spiral out of control. Usually it’s a confluence of events, between sickness and layoffs and a bad economic environment and, as you say, lackluster support networks. (There are also issues of privilege floating in the background, here.)

    This is why it’s unsurprising to me when people are dismissive of transience or health insurance–in their minds, it’s clear that the person simply made the wrong decisions and is now reaping the costs. This is, of course, a fiction, but one that is easy to believe. “If they had worked harder, they wouldn’t have been fired.” “If they spent less, they’d have been able to keep a roof over their head.” We realize that so much of this comes down to things outside an individual’s control. Layoffs often happen because of the economic climate, not the worker’s quality. Debt is often in flux, and can be gamed by companies and so on.

    A person’s decisions are never made in a vacuum, and there are many events impacting one’s life that one has no control over.

    Keep on writing political fiction! It is truly the good fight.

    • Thanks, Sam. You’re right about the “out of control” issues that can pile up on someone. You’d think that those who place the blame back on the victim of circumstance would always be someone who’s never been out of control. And I think many of them are—they are people who believe that the individual has complete control over every aspect of their life and life hasn’t yet taught them otherwise.

      But I’ve also known people who’ve had setbacks and whose lives have been out of control who feel that if they had not been able to survive those hard times then it was appropriate for them to simply not survive the experience. I had one fellow tell me that he’d weathered a spell of bad luck and felt that it was no one else’s responsibility to help him out—to save his health or his house. But the point is, he did survive, and I honestly believe he could not imagine what it would have been like not to simply face “tough choices” (wonderful euphemism) but to find he had NO choices at all.

      BTW, I don’t write political fiction—at least not in the partisan sense. This—and healthcare—are among “causes” I involve myself in because they are human and social issues that are transcend politics and labels such as “liberal” and “conservative”.

      Thank you for your words of encouragement—I will definitely continue to write about these issues.

  5. My parents reason that way. My mother told us, “When I’m terminally ill, then don’t go to heroic efforts.” Fine — but you only know it’s terminal, when, you know, you -die.- Suppose a medical intervention brings you back from the brink and you go on to ten more happy healthy years? Then, obviously, the medical work was well worth while. But how can you know which it is, at the outset? She was unable to grasp this distinction.

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