I saw this story on The New York Times today.
To make it brief, a Republican in Arizona (oh, Arizona, again) has been recruiting homeless people to run on the Green Party ticket in order to split the Democratic vote. A lot of Democrats have been denouncing this as "deceitful" and "not right" and as a corruption of the democratic (small d) process. They're right, of course.
But what makes me really angry is this: that people in power are using the least powerful to do their dirty work.
I think I need to go back a few steps and explain why I'm so angry about this.
The way-back background: my dad's a social worker who has been working with at-risk kids and youth since before I was born. I got exposed rather early to things like poverty and homelessness and general life-isn't-fairness, even if I didn't really understand the causes or the underlying structures that allow for those things. What I did grasp was this: there were people who were much less fortunate than I was, and as such, I was, in part, responsible for helping them out.
The not-as-way-back background: When I was a freshman in college, I joined a group called YACHT--Youth Against Complacency and Homelessness Today (yeah, we got a kick out of the name). We did a lot of things, but we were most known for our Saturday morning trips to Philly to hang out with homeless people. At the beginning of each semester, we'd harangue 80 or so of our fellow college students into giving up one meal a week; in return, our school's food service gave us lunch food for that many people.
Every Saturday morning, we'd gather and make lunches, then go down to the city, split off in twos or threes, and find homeless people to give lunches to. The idea was that if the person (or people) was willing, you'd sit down and hang out, have a conversation, shoot the breeze, whatever. If you'd been doing this a while, you most likely would know a few people and go hang out with them every week.
It was a delicate balance: some people didn't want to talk, and you'd give them a lunch and leave. You respected boundaries. Some people didn't respect your boundaries (I can't even count how many times I got hit on). And as I went to an evangelical Christian college, we always laid down the rules for our new members: no religious tracts, no attempts to convert. If someone wants to talk to you about your faith, go for it. But most people on the streets have heard "the gospel" many times and with too many strings attached. Our goal was not to (as St Francis's prayer puts it) "seek to...be understood but to understand." It was to listen, not to talk.
I got to know a lot of people on the streets. My go-to guy during my last couple of years was a man named Pop, who usually hung out (for those of you who know Philly) underneath the spiral stairs leading down to Suburban Station. We'd sit around and talk about everything and nothing--baseball, the weather, politics, the fact that the pigeons liked to sit on the statue and poop on unsuspecting travellers' heads. I'd often take him down to the Dunkin' Donuts in the station, where I'd get coffee and he'd get tea or Mountain Dew, depending on the season. I introduced him to my parents when they came to visit, and when I graduated, I made sure that the underclassmen knew who he was. I still see him once in a while when I'm going through Suburban Station.
The only-a-few-years-ago background: After I graduated, I joined the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps for a year and worked at N Street Village in DC, which is a social services organization for homeless and low-income women. It was a good year (and I'll wax rhapsodic about hanging out with friars at some other time). It was a hard year. I worked in the day center part of NSV. Most of the time, we got the same women in day after day--a lot of them lived there, and N Street's probably the best shelter/day center/program in the city for women. Many of them were in recovery and went to several AA/NA meetings a day--the women in the recovery program were required to go to an early morning meeting every day. I met some lovely women, and I met some very screwed-up women. It was difficult for me to go from "hanging out" to working at a place where there were established boundaries and rules I had to enforce, and most of the time, my thinking about privilege and race got in the way of my job (as in, "crap, I'm a 23-year-old white girl who's telling black women twice my age what to do"). But I formed solid friendships with some of the women, and I learned a lot that year.
So there's my story, and it's why I'm so, so angry about this shithead in Arizona. Because he's taking advantage of people who are on "the raggedy edge," people who may not have another place to go. Because those people he's taking advantage of could be the people I know. Because he's making a spectacle out of other human beings.
You don't treat other people as a means to an end. You don't treat people like things. Why is this so f*cking hard to understand?