In the world inhabited by the Republican presidential candidates I listened to last night, there's no room for people who don't "take responsibility" and master the universe without any help from others — especially the government.
Should one of these candidates prevail, some magical combination of American self-reliance, God and the free market, defended by our young men in uniform, will take care of everything, and I'll have to find something else to do with my Wednesday mornings.
For now, though, the people I'm serving at the Day Center can use the help.
From the outside, our guests all belong to one simplistic class — the homeless —and you could find among them some people the Republicans would be quick to put on their End Welfare poster. But you'd also find a lot of them used to be our young men in uniform.
And you'd find Charley.
Charley comes in to the Day Center for a shower because the hot water in his trailer doesn't work. He's not technically homeless now, but he used to be. He's employed by a nearby company that provides traffic signs, safety barricades and flagmen for construction sites. He gets laid off when construction slows in the winter.
Today, he spent a lot of time on the phone. One of the calls was to Rhode Island where he is slowly paying off an old DUI fine that encumbers his drivers license. (The conviction goes back to 1987, he says.)
When he learned he only owes the court $115 more, he was so happy, he called his mother.
"I'm a different person now than I was then," he said.
He has a different life now, too. Here in Grand Junction, he lived in a shelter until he was able to save enough money to buy a car he couldn't drive. "I moved into my car. Then I bought a truck."
The truck sat until he could afford to buy a 27-foot trailer, which he towed to its present location. Then he parked the truck. "One step at a time," he said. "I can hardly wait to drive again. My boss says he'll make me a supervisor."
Once he finishes paying off the fine, the license restriction will be lifted, which means he'll be eligible for more work. So far, he's only been able to take flagging jobs reachable by bus, competing with other workers who have the same limitation. And of course, if the government doesn't do many road projects, he'll have less work, so you could say he's still dependent on the government.
When you start to look beyond the "responsibility" rap against the homeless and actually talk to them, you'll find people slowly working themselves back from addictions, struggling with mental illness, looking over their shoulders for abusers, trying to go back to school and stick this time, working their way through the parole and probation systems, and contending with physical disabilities.
Today, for example, I noted among our 63 guests:
- A man with his leg amputated at the knee
- A man carrying an oxygen tank and taking medications for his heart, lungs and kidneys
- A man whose right side is limp from a stroke
- A man with a dent the size of a soup can in his skull
- A man missing his right hand
- Many men and women misssing teeth
- A man with a plate in his head and facial scarring
- A veteran whose first nervous breakdown came in 1972
- A man whose sister claims he has brain damage
- A woman with a black eye
- A man with a black eye patch
- A woman who's deaf
- A woman who's morbidly obese
- A woman who's been sexually abused by family members.
I'm sure I don't know the half of it.
It's easy enough to generalize, to label people by their address or lack of one, by their dress or the look in their eyes. If you stand far enough away — in an Iowa Pizza Ranch, for example — you can look at the folks who filter through the Day Center and decide they're not worthy. You can wonder why they don't get some gumption and stand up on their own two feet (or foot, as the case may be). You can convince a crowd that keeping their tax dollars for themselves is best for everyone.
You can celebrate success and praise freedom and call yourself God's chosen.
But I don't think it's so.