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You see them and try not to see them, but there they are: standing on the intersections of boulevards and roads, with dog, child or crutch in tow, and always with a sign. You may think that they are lazy, or unwilling, or you may feel sorry for them, or you may dig into your reliable trove of excuses and explanations and then the light turns green. Few who have not actually stood on corners asking for help and sending cardboard blessings know what it’s like. I have an inkling, and every time I see them, I cringe.

At a certain point in my life, for reasons still unclear to me, I ended up working 15-hour days, 6-times a week, for a full summer. Almost the entirety of each day was spent outside, in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, selling educational study-guides door-to-door. Baltimore summers are toasty, and sometime mid-summer I noticed that I had formed burn-scars on my knuckles from knocking on so many white-hot doors. But what I also noticed, from the very first day, was the inordinate toll that being outdoors, in a man-made environment, takes on a human body and on a human psyche.

Let’s start with the obvious: the elements. You are out there rain or shine, and sometimes you wish it was the rain because after being outside in 90+ degree weather in 100% humidity for a couple of hours, you start seeing things. You are lucky if you come across a McDonalds or a kind person who will offer you water. Mostly, though, you suffer. The wind messes up your hair, the drivers splatter you with puddle-grime, mosquitos sting you, as do bees, spiders, nettles and sometimes dogs. By three in the afternoon you are lobster-boil red, by five your blisters have popped. If it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. But whatever the weather, you are completely vulnerable, completely unsafe and mostly helpless against it.

Before all of your senses are dulled as a survival mechanism, the smells are as abrasive as the sensations of freezing and heat. You are bombarded with olfactory information that you do not need: gasoline and fumes, garbage odors, toxic whiffs of $5.99 perfume. The tantalizing aromas of fresh, sugary donuts and coffee wafting out of Starbucks wannabes are no better. You are hungry and have no place to sit down and eat your food. And when you have eaten, you have no place to relieve yourself.

The sights, too, are overwhelming. Hundreds of eyes bore into you: questioning, suspicious, misunderstanding, empathetic, apologetic, frustrated, disgusted. Before they know what you’re about, they have already passed a judgement. We all do this, don’t we? Standing precariously close to oncoming traffic, those in need must see a thousand averted glances, a thousand cars, busses, cyclists, trucks, vans – within a span of a few hours. They see everything, and, what’s worse, everyone sees them. There is no place to hide. No place to be alone, to be safe.

You’d think the visual overload would be the worst, but for me, walking up and down the streets of those subdivisions that are now permanently charred into my cerebral cortex, the worst was the noise. The cars screech, the gusts of wind howl menacingly, there is a general hummmmm to the city that insidiously bores into your sub-consciousness and slowly replaces everything else. By 7pm, there are no more songs running through your head, no thoughts, no worries; nothing at all. And this is just the first day.

For years afterwards I had nightmares that I was lost in those streets, alone and helpless and drowning in the intensity of it all. I cannot imagine what such a life does to someone who is forced to live it for months or years. Unable as I am to solve the problems of poverty, when I see folks out on the street, my heart goes out to them because I know that they must be hurting.

I cannot express the shame that I felt, sitting in the Poway office of Social Services, belly nice and round, waiting in line for my appointment. The waiting area was crowded, with women and children walking around, sitting, feeding their young, chatting, sleeping. It was hot and muggy. The chairs were metal, the floors – a gray linoleum checker board.

 I could not help but notice that I was the only white person in the entire building. I was also the only one with a book, desperately peering into it as if to find some long-lost answer, or some solace to my present situation. The solace being that I was educated, I had a future, and I was living this temporary humiliation by choice…by some choice…

 Every person I spoke to that afternoon in the office saw a bewildered yet mostly composed young woman, on her third trimester of pregnancy, apologetically explaining her circumstances, believing that someone cared. In those offices I tried to meet the eye of the receptionists and the social workers, to show them in some unspoken way that, hey, I was not one of them , I was not planning on living off of the hard-earned tax dollars of my fellow Americans. At least not for long. I was going to graduate college, get a job, my husband who was studying in Paris was going to join me, we were going to work and support ourselves as I know every good citizen should.

 That was the first time I became personally acquainted with the social services. I had just come to ask for MediCal health insurance to cover me and my daughter during pregnancy and childbirth. Yes, it felt like I was literally asking the system to take pity on me. That was before our second child, and joblessness, and graduate school, and poverty and actual hunger contrasting sharply with my continued studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. My small family ended up living nearly three years needing medical insurance support, then food stamps, utility bills, and finally cash aid to keep us afloat.

 The experience was most humbling: the forms to fill out, the calls, the visits and explanations, more paperwork, and the dull grind of the system working its charm. I came to understand that those sitting behind the desk or at the computer in the social services division where a mere breath away from succumbing to poverty themselves. For them, it was payday to payday, for us – disbursement to disbursement. Sometimes the disbursements were late. Sometimes we were hungry, and so the initial, raw shame turned to anger, frustration, calculation, and ultimately, a bizarre sense of entitlement, almost.

 I cannot explain it. But you get used to it. You have to eat, and feed your children. It’s really that simple.

 We got off the first moment we could. The joy of saying, “No, I will not be filing this quarter – we do not need the food stamps and cash aid and MediCal any more” was overwhelming. And yet, with a Masters degree and a relatively secure job, it seems that we are still teetering on the brink of the abyss. A single missed payday, and we will be hungry again.

 I write about this because it aches.

 Having been on both ends of the divide, I have a couple words for those who complain about their tax dollars being used to support those who cannot support themselves: there was a time in your life when you needed help too.

It’s no fun sitting in those offices, it’s no fun being looked down upon. If it was possible to work, to earn enough to support a family, most people would do it. See, if we weren’t so greedy, if we shared what was given to us , everyone would have enough. And in these times, anyone could end up on the other side, sitting in front of a grimy metal desk, answering personal questions and explaining why it is that they can’t seem to get a job for the fifth month in a row . Anyone can end up needing some extra support, offered with grace and compassion.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. That’s what I learned from my years below the poverty line. That’s what I want to pass along. Lets leave it there.

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