13 February 2007

Changing the Dream

The anticipated winter storm has been drizzling on us since I woke up this morning. The forecasters say the system will stick around for over 24 hours. Last I heard (11 pm news) they think we might get 2-4 inches of something—a rain, ice and snow mix. Virginia has pretty mild winters, which makes such storm systems Events. In Michigan, where a single winter storm can dump a foot of snow on us overnight, we would call this negligible. Still, while I'm Michigan born, I'm mostly Virginia bred; so I have already laid in the water supplies in case the pipes freeze tonight, and have charged up the small camping generator in case the power goes out.

There are worse places to be in a winter storm. Out on the street is one of them.

Those who know me may have noticed that I don't talk about my family or my past much. I talk a lot about my busywork. I don't say why I fill my hours with meetings. I talk about my issues. I don't say why I am so passionately connected to them. But lately, it seems to me that we all need to talk about the whys. You can't forge a relationship with a statistic. A statistic has no feeling, a statistic has no story. We need to take the statistics, and the soundbytes that go with them, out of civic interaction and bring back the humanity.

Of all my sprawling, extended family--my mother was the eldest of 8, my father the youngest of 9--the only two who still live in Virginia are my mother and me. We moved here in 1972--my mother, my father, my half-sister, and me. One of my maternal uncles joined us for a couple of years in the mid-70s and then, again, six years ago. Of our teensified, 5-member, family twig, two of us have become homeless in this state, my half-sister and my uncle. And one of us (me) has felt helpless both times to be of any use in the face of their need. With my sister, I was admittedly too young to do anything but bear witness until she died before age 21 (I was 14 at the time). With my uncle, I was an adult, and still limited--by my lack of resources, by my temperament, by my inability to provide a stabilizing foundation for him.

There is a lot more to each of their stories--maybe I'll share them some day, maybe not--but my experiences with them informed my desire to be involved in some institution, some edifice, some place, that could have helped them in ways that I personally could not and still can not. The inability to help someone we love sharply defines our powerlessness in this world. We try sympathy, we try tough love, we do what we can, we pray to God. Sometimes it isn't enough. One person can not be an entire support network.

They are why I write about affordable housing and homelessness so often. They are why I'm involved with Compass.

Once, the extended family was the basis for our societal structure. Cousins to the third degree all lived within the same geographical area, everyone knew everybody else's business, and the family had the combined resources to take care of its own. Now, isolation rules. Broken families living hundreds of miles apart can not and will not provide the support an individual may need when their life comes crashing down around them. They may not even know when support is needed or what kind of support to give. People who have a large, connected, concerned family are blessed--and increasingly rare.

Homelessness, I sometimes think, is the natural result of the way we've chosen to focus the American Dream upon a small nuclear family living in a large, single-family home. That dream leaves no bulwark in the face of a rising divorce rate. That dream keeps us from really knowing our neighbors and our extended relatives because the literal space between us has created a much larger, metaphorical space. That dream keeps us isolated at times when isolation can only hurt us more.

Isn't it time we changed the dream?

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