There but for fortune ...

Mark Salvatore, left, a homeless outreach nurse with the Veterans Administration, talks with homeless Vietnam veteran William Joyce in Philadelphia.

Homelessness is less about character than it is about fate


Recently I was at a gathering where a woman was discussing the homeless, the indigent, those who use the emergency room regularly, addicts, and - presumably - all others who, in her words, "abuse the system."

"Listen," she declared (as if those in the immediate vicinity had a choice), "I had it tough growing up, too. I know what it's like to struggle. I know what it's like to be poor. I didn't get a college education handed to me. But I worked hard, and I did all right for myself. And if I made it, why can't they?"

I chewed on my tongue as I walked away. I shouldn't have. I know that for many people, her question -if not her cocktail-fueled delivery - is a legitimate one. And if anyone there had the experience to answer her, it was me; but my response at that moment would not have been as well-considered, or as courteous, as the one I'd like to make now.

I have a number of good friends who are or have been homeless, penniless, addicted, and/or in prison. Some of them have made the Herculean effort to crawl, agonizing-inch-by-agonizing-inch, back into what we rather blithely call "normal" life.

Despite the odds posed by prejudice; the near impossibility of getting work without things that most of us take for granted like an I.D., bank account, driver's license, or even regular access to a shower and clean clothes; and the tangle of cross-purposed agencies that offer superficial hope but little help, these individuals have managed. They hang on by a string so fine it could be severed by one missed rent payment, a traffic ticket, a layoff, a doctor's visit, a gap in the availability of their medication.

Then there are the others, the ones the cocktail party chatterer would accuse of being the "real" abusers and wastrels: the ones who are in and out of homeless shelters, can't shake addictions, can't keep a job, and have all but given up on achieving what we consider the bare minimums of life.

"If I did it, why can't they?"

Because no matter how tough you think you had it, something good happened to you that simply didn't happen to them. I've come to realize that it's just that simple. Maybe you had a teacher, camp counselor, friend, minister, doctor, etc., who took an interest in you; perhaps it was just enough to give you hope, perhaps more.

Or, you had a parent or family member, even only one, who managed to stay enough above the fray to help you keep your head up. Or, biology or genetics were on your side in just one small way that you may never even identify. Or, for a period of your life - even a very short period - an acquaintance, colleague, all-but-stranger, was kind to you. Or, an employer, police officer or judge once gave you a break. Or, at a moment when you were about to make the kind of mistake that would have started you on the long plunge to devastation and dissipation, someone smiled at you and you made a different decision.

It's that simple. Whether you know it or not, whether you admit it to yourself or not, something happened at some point in your life that just didn't happen in their lives.

But for the grace of God?

No. The poor, addicted, mentally ill, and desperate don't suffer because they lack the grace of God. They suffer because the rest of us do.

Marci Alborghetti lives in New London.

A 58-year-old woman living on the streets in Beverly Hills, Calif.
A 58-year-old woman living on the streets in Beverly Hills, Calif.


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