Posted by: Ken Homer | March 24, 2008

“I know this is magical thinking but…”

The words above were spoken through tears and sobs by a woman in the small group I was facilitating last weekend at the Deliberative Polling event in Redwood City. 

She had self-identified earlier as developmentally disabled.  I looked over to see her in tears in the midst of one of our many conversations about affordable housing.

Stopping the conversation to inquire into what was going on for her, she was embarrassed by the attention suddenly shown to her and apologized several times.

Without thinking, I said “It’s okay.”

She rebuked me saying “No, it’s not okay, I am really scared.”

“What are you afraid of?” I inquired.

“Of being homeless.” She replied 

Handing her a tissue, I offered my apology stating that what I had meant, was that it was okay that she was crying, but I agreed that the reason for her tears was far from okay. I urged her to share with us what was going on for her. 

She described a life hard lived.

“I’m high functioning ya know, but basically I am only about 13 when it comes to emotions and reasoning. I can’t follow all this data and all these proposals, it hurts my head. But when I look at this table and see that they define affordable housing as $1,500 a month it makes me physically sick. I feel like I want to throw up. Where do they get this number?! $1,500 a month is so far beyond my what I can afford I am ashamed to even speak up.”

Several of us inquire “What would be affordable for you?”,  after much prompting, she offers, “Well with my son’s SSI and my minimum wage job, I might be able to handle $700 a month.”

She has a 22 year old son who is completely disabled,  can not work and is dependent on SSI.

She’s lived in the same home for 44 years with her parents who are now in their late 80s. Their house, a modest home in a working class neighborhood, probably cost them about $15,000 when they bought it back in the 1950s, but due to the unreal workings of the real estate market in the Bay Area, it is now worth close to a million.

She has two siblings and when her folks pass, they’ll want to sell the house and divide the proceeds. She knows that her share will not be enough to allow her to live in the only community she has known her entire life, and with a dependent son, she is terrified that she’ll be living on the street within a few short years.

“I look around and I see all these people driving in their expensive cars and living in their huge houses behind locked gates.

They look right through me on the street and in stores.

It’s like I don’t exist to them, and I wonder what the hell happened? What went wrong?

I grew up in  a neighborhood where everybody knew each other and looked out for each other.

Where did that go? How come people are so afraid of each other now? 

I’m scared. I’m getting on, I have a disabled son, and elderly parents. I’m smart, but not smart enough to get a high paying job. I have no one to turn to.

I know it is magical thinking, but I just want it all to work out.” 

Reading the news of the world this week, I’ve lost count of how often I have felt the same way. 

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Responses

  1. This young woman has asked a most provocative question – how come we are so afraid of each other? I also remember a time when neighbor helped neighbor. Everyone rallied to assist and support a neighbor in need. A time when lawsuits were rare and government programs few. We needed each other then, and we knew it. What about now? What’s changed?

  2. Thanks for your comment LaDonna.

    I spend a lot of time pondering your questions of what’s changed and what about now?

    I think you nail something quite profound – we knew we needed each other when people lived closer together and closer to the land. Those times are irrevocably gone due to many circumstances, but that does not mean they can’t inform our learning.

    With so many of us in urban settings it is much easier to be ignorant of the delicate threads that weave a community together.

    I see great hope and possibility as people wake up to the fact that neither of the two major models for organizing ourselves in the 20th century work very well.

    We can’t pit the interests of the individual against the community, nor can we pit those of the community against the individual. This either or thinking is not sustainable for either the individual or the community, and as we are seeing it has tragic consequences for other life as well. So something else must emerge.

    Some kind of model that is combines supporting both the individual-in-community and community-in-individual seems to be emerging in some areas.


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