Roughly one hundred and fifty people now live in a tent city under the main interstate and entry to Charleston. Tent cities are nothing new to Charleston but the visibility of this one is. What could once be ignored is now in plain sight. It's interesting to think about how it is we can collectively ignore its presence; maybe if we are all guilty we hope none of us are.
The tent city can't stay on the Department of Transportation's land forever. Mayor Tecklenburg in his state of the city address made plans "to bring a humane but clear end in the near future," and that plan is beginning to take action.
I've had the opportunity in recent years to see first-hand how the poor are treated. I lived voluntarily for a year in a transitional housing facility for the homeless, sleeping every night in a dorm room with 26 beds. Through that experience I started an employment agency (ieslaborservices.com) which has employed hundreds of lower wage employees over the past 5 years.
At one extreme some treat the poor like a bird forcing their young out of the nest as soon as they think it's time. We tell them "Best of luck! You're on your own. Get a job, pay your taxes, feed and clothe yourself. Your mother and I have given you all we can." They wander down the street with their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle lunch box and book bag completely unprepared for life.
"We provided him with a resume and even helped him open a bank account," we think to ourselves, "and we gave him free rent! We don't understand what the problem is."
"The real issue is a drug habit or laziness or a criminal background," we tell ourselves.
At the other extreme some treat the poor as if they were still living in the room above their garage. "She's just not ready to face the world yet. Yes, we understand it may be time for her to move on but she can't live without us," we tell ourselves. "We can't push her out now. We would be bad parents." They sit upstairs playing video games and watching Netflix, completely unprepared for life.
"A little more time and education and she can get a real job and move out," we think to ourselves, "and we weren't fair to her when she was young! We don't understand what the problem is."
"The real issue is corporations and greed and lack of opportunity," we tell ourselves.
While most of our views fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, the problem with the paradigm isn't which perspective of the poor as a child is right; it's that the poor are not our children at all--and yet we continue to treat them as such.
In my experiences of living and working with the poor I've noticed those who view the poor as young to be forced from the nest become jaded and cynical and burnout while those who allow them to live above their garage become drained emotionally and financially and also burn out. When we assume we can make the difference for somebody else we also imply we can take responsibility for another person's life--and that I've found is too great of a weight for any of us to carry.
The path toward solutions for our vexing social problems begins with a shift in perspective: I must surrender my belief that I can solve the problem at all. I must also surrender the belief I can solve my own problems. The result is empathy. The thought process goes like this:
I gave an opportunity to a person today for a job and they didn't give it their best. Yet, I've been given opportunities for jobs to do and I chose not to give it my best. Even so, I keep getting more opportunities.
Or like this:
We keep creating solutions to end homelessness and yet these people lack gratitude and even complain. Yet, though solutions have been given to me to improve my life I lack gratitude and complain. Even so, I keep getting more opportunities to improve my life.
Or like this:
This person has an addiction they cannot break. Yet, I too have an addiction or have struggled with addictions I cannot break. Even so, I keep getting another day to try to break it.
Empathy--the willingness to understand another's problem--creates equality in that another's problem is not above or below us to experience. Most of us in all aspects of life are willing to take suggestions from someone who views themselves as equal and not superior.
Empathy and equality at their core are gateways to love.
Stanford's d.school calls empathy the first step to creating a successful business. The closer you can get to the person's problem you're trying to solve the better chance you have of understanding and solving it, the argument goes. This implies the best way to find a solution would be to put up your own tent in the tent city, live where they live, work where they work, and sleep where they sleep. Slowly you'll find solutions to solve staying warm at night, providing an address on your employment application, and cleaning yourself before heading to work.
If I learned anything from my time in the half way house for the homeless, it's that I can never fully empathize with the depth of challenges each of us must face as human beings. Yet at the same time true empathy and equality can help us better solve these problems. If someone could walk in my shoes and solve my problems I'd hang onto their every word.
Our call to action is to change our perspective away from subtle, well-meaning arrogance towards empathy and equality. Then in humility we can create action steps.
Because in Charleston we are the salt of the earth. And as such we rush towards those places others run from, to preserve and further life even at the expense of our own. Through empathy and sacrifice we demonstrate the depth of empathy and sacrifice we ourselves have received. And together we can achieve the Mayor's vision for the city, a Charleston that's not just the best place in the world to visit but the best place to live; a place where together we can see heaven come a little closer to earth.