Here Where I Live: Poverty, Responsibility & Other People’s Kids

I meant to tell you this days ago. In fact, for the past week I have been falling asleep writing this blog post in my head. But: the girl has been unimaginably fussy (rash on her torso? teething?), my knee has been hurting, the cat has needed to go in and out a million gazillion times, laundry is piling up, light bulbs in the bathroom burned out, the changing table shelf broke, and on and on. But here I am, FINALLY.

This post started with a study by Tufts University that “it’s the quality of housing – the presence of peeling paint or cockroaches, broken appliances or damaged walls – that most strongly predicts a child’s well-being and development.” Maybe this doesn’t seem like news, because we have a strong stereotype of the “projects” from movies and television. Crime happens there. Kids struggle to succeed. Drugs deals abound. Not surprisingly, the study found that “children in more derelict housing had lower average reading and math skills. They had more emotional and behavioral problems.”

But this kind of derelict housing? It is here where we live. Walking distance away. (Side note: did you know that  23% of Oregon kids live in poverty?). On my day off, I leave the house to go do whatever it is adults do when they aren’t caring for small children or working. I don’t actually know what it is adults do (sleep deprivation having wiped such memories from my brain), so between the necessary grocery shopping, thrift store forays, and library visits, I often end up simply parked by the side of the road, savoring the freedom to sit in silence without being tugged, needed, or whined upon.

Family winter warming shelter at our church. Photo by Human Solutions.

Family winter warming shelter at our church. Photo by Human Solutions.

Sometimes the side of the road finds me in front of an apartment complex on a busy street where I experience a trifecta of confusing emotions: a) relief: thank heaven I don’t have to live here, b) guilt: wow, some other family DOES have to live here, and c) concern: what should I be doing, if anything, about the quality of housing in my neighborhood?

Before I can untangle all those thoughts, I have to talk about the comments that people posted in the article on housing. Vicious, judgmental comments that blame poverty on poor people, make assumptions about priorities and choices, and assert that poor quality housing is a form of intentional, parental neglect.

Reading the comments made me cry. Do we really think so little of one another? Haven’t you ever looked for a place to live and had the experience of realizing that ALL YOU COULD AFFORD was a place you would not willingly choose to live, IF you had the choice? Can we really be so hard-hearted toward other human beings, to other PARENTS?

I don’t mean to be naive. Of course there are indifferent parents, people caught in addiction, and abusive families (in both rich and poor neighborhoods…though we don’t judge the rich neighborhoods the same). But all people, regardless of circumstance, are still real human beings who are deeply beloved by the Holy All who made them. I believe that God made everybody. And God loves everybody the same. In fact, if the Jesus stories are to be believed, God might even love the people who are parenting in poor housing a little bit more, because they need more love.

I have more to say about this. I want to talk about how racism intersects with poverty. I want to remind us that institutionalized oppression makes and keeps people poor.  I want to share my hopes for the church where my family has settled, here in Northeast Portland, and the winter warming shelter we host for homeless families. And I want to find out how we can work together to take responsibility for our neighborhoods.

But it is late and I need to sleep.

So I will sign off this post, throw a load in the wash, comfort the girl when she wakes without her bottle (tragedy!), rub my sore knee, and let the cat out. And while I stand on my dark porch stoop and look at my neighborhood, I will wonder: what can I do? How can I bring more love? How can I let more love in?

I don’t have the answers, but I do know, with deep conviction, that families are not just numbers in a study, and their struggles to find decent housing are not someone else’s problem. They live here, where I live, and our lives are connected. So I’ll start here, where I am —  holding out my heart, offering up my prayers, and in these words, making a commitment to find answers and take action.

(Hey, is that what adults do on their days off? Do good work for their community? Hmmm…. )

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What is it like where you live?