Broken communities

Day 28–July 31, 2009

There are many ways a person can be homeless; staying with family or friends; living in transitional housing or shelters; or simply getting by on the street, in cars, or in tents.

Regardless, homelessness is the result of a breakdown in community. For those with a supportive network of family and friends–a network that takes care of one another, there should be no need for anyone to be living on the street or in a shelter. If I fall, I know I will have someone to catch me and give me a hand until I can stand on my own. But for millions of Americans such a support network does not exist. When they fall, their network of family and friends cannot pick them up as they too have fallen.

After I graduated from college, before I got my first job as a reporter, I worked at JCPenney. I earned so little money that I got back all the state and federal taxes that had been deducted from my paycheck. Had I not lived in an apartment owned by my grandmother, at dramatically reduced rent, there is no way I could have afforded housing short of moving back home with my parents. But many people do not have this option. If your parents and grandparents are barely making ends meet, they will not be able to lend a hand.

Just as wealth is passed from one generation to another, the inability of one generation to give the next a lift up can pass poverty down generation after generation. By guaranteeing that everyone has a roof over his or her head, we can break out of the cycle of poverty.

To find the solutions, we need only look to our own neighborhoods. Before I set out on this trip I spoke with Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about the many challenges facing those who advocate for the homeless. She told me the problems and solutions can be found within our own communities. Yes, economic decisions at the federal level have an impact, but decisions that determine quality of life are made by our friends and neighbors.

It is the neighbors who cry NIMBY when attempts are made to build affordable homes. It is the citizens who argue against tax increases to fund public transportation, health and human services, all-day kindergarten or other services that benefit the poor.

While I was a reporter in Kent, Ct., there was a bitter fight to bring just a few units of affordable housing to the town. Though the proposal eventually passed I was intensely angry at those who had opposed building affordable housing and suggested it would bring “undesirables” to the town. What they didn’t realize (or perhaps maybe they did) was that those “undesirables” were their firefighters, teachers, small business owners and dozens of others who made the town run, people like me.

Most people understand schools, roads, parks, trash collection and a multitude of other services cost money. Similarly it is accepted that if we do not pay for such services we will live in a world where there is no need to worry about how a firetruck will get around a pile of uncollected garbage on an unplowed road to put out a fire at your house, because there will be no firetruck. But, when it comes to taking care of people, paying them enough to live, and ensuring that everyone can afford housing, we suddenly can’t understand why minimum wage is not enough to make ends meet.

So look around your community and ask yourself which of your neighbors is struggling to make ends meet. And then ask what you have done to ensure everyone can afford a home.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Detour

Nearly four weeks, and 230 miles, into my trip I have come to the realization that my injuries cannot be ignored. So, as of today, I am stepping off the road. After a couple weeks of rest my ankle should be ready to pound the pavement once again.

Though I have not made it nearly as far as I had planned, it is my hope that even this short journey has made a difference, and has reminded people that we all are responsible for bringing about positive change in our communities. And, if I have been able to inspire those I’ve met on my journey, it is thanks to the support of my family and friends–who spurred me on and encouraged me every step of the way.

I do not know for sure how long I will be off the road or where this detour will take me. But I can be certain it is just the first of many bumps in the road.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

From Pittsburgh With Love

Day 26–July 29, 2009 (rest in Pittsburgh, 0.0 miles)

Since I began my walk not a month ago I have climbed mountains and walked beside farm fields. I have met amazing and generous people and made lifelong friends. I’ve walked through impoverished communities and been touched as those with almost nothing pulled money out of their wallet to help me on my way. I’ve been harassed and arrested by police, and fired from my job. And, yet, I still feel I have lived a truly fortunate life.

This morning I awoke in a women’s shelter. I may have been there by choice, but the other women who had arrived at Pittsburgh’s Bethlehem Haven shelter were there as a last resort. Some had been living on the streets or left domestic violence. One woman had a terminal illness and was attempting to fulfill her dream of traveling when her wallet and bus ticket was stolen, stranding her in Pittsburgh with no money. My roommate for the night had moved to the shelter to escape an abusive relative. But the shelter offers only a temporary safety net. Each woman still must find permanent housing.

I can’t imagine ever thinking that a shelter, no matter how nice, is a step up. But I can see how easily one can become tangled in the system, unable to break free. The loss of a job, a house or the need to escape a violent situation can lead to the rapid unraveling of what is often a fragile support system. When I arrived at the shelter yesterday I went through the same intake process as all the other women, was given my sheets and towel and the combination for my locker, and a room–a base from which to find a home, a job and put one’s life together. For all my education and hard work I could easily be in their shoes. As of this morning I too join the ranks of the unemployed–the victim of sexual discrimination packaged as a layoff. I was fired from my online job this morning as I sat working on my laptop in the dining room of the shelter.

caption=”Pittsburgh is a city of contrasts. Lovely in parts around the universities while areas like this and near Duquesne University (above) are in serious decay.”

I would like to think my determination, education and drive to succeed would keep me from being homeless. In truth, there is nothing to prevent it from happening to anyone at any time. While I lived in Brussels I spent three months living in a quasi-homeless state. My husband and I went from living in a beautiful and spacious apartment to a cramped hotel room in the blink of an eye. One day we had an apartment, the next day it was uninhabitable as the result of a fire. We were forced to gather our belongings and move into a hotel, then another hotel, then another. We were able to keep a roof over our head only through the support of friends and family and good jobs. Had we lacked either or both of these, we could have easily been out on the street.

And so if I have learned anything in my travels, it is how fragile our support systems really are, and how readily and frequently those in positions of authority trample on even our most basic rights–whether it comes in the form of harassment by police, sexual discrimination on the job, or by well meaning groups and individuals who expect privacy and free will to be checked at the door.

Though I have only been on the road for a month, I have experienced more highs and lows than many experience in a lifetime. The opportunity to travel across the country, make friends of strangers, and share their hopes, dreams and struggles has changed me immeasurably. I have a deeper appreciation for just how hard so many people work to barely scrape by.

caption=”There has long been a gap between the rich and poor but evidence suggests it is growing.”

And yet few seem bitter about a life of struggle. Even when I talked with those who clearly were poor, they spoke a common refrain: “no matter how bad I have it, someone else has it worse.” I cheer their optimism, but it disturbs me to think that so many have accepted that they do not deserve better, and do not question that a minority in this world have a right to horde a majority of the resources and benefits.

So I am saddened to have to take time from my trip, but my ankle injury is too painful for me to continue walking. How long my recovery will take is unclear. But I do know that even this very necessary recovery time is a luxury many in this nation do not have. I may be putting my travels on hold, but I am not ending my journey, my fight to bring about change, and and close the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

A home of her own

Day 25–July 28 (North Versailles, PA-Pittsburgh, PA, 12.7 miles)

Virginia Woolf once said that for women to be successful as writers they had to have a “room of one’s own.” But many women do not even have a place to call home, let alone a room to devote to creative endeavors.

In Pittsburgh there are numerous shelters, but they are not a home. They are at best a temporary resting place, an opportunity to regroup and gather resources for the endless battle to keep a roof over one’s head.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, I walked off the street into Bethlehem Shelter just as so many homeless women have done before me. While I was being checked in, a woman who worked at the women’s shelter told me that there are more homeless women than homeless men in the United States. She suggested that many men who would otherwise be homeless, are instead behind bars. And, many women find themselves on the streets as they attempt to escape from domestic violence. Though I found ample evidence to suggest her statement was correct, it was a challenge to find hard statistical data. Few reports on homelessness detail gender.

But there is no shortage of evidence showing that women are far more likely to live in poverty. In 2008 the wage gap meant that women in this country were paid just 77.1¢ for every $1 earned their male counterparts. And more than half of the roughly 37 million Americans living in poverty are women.

Few sectors are immune from the wage gap. When I plugged my income, industry and location into the wage gap calculator on the WAGE Project’s Web site, I found that I make just 73% of the income of the average white non-Hispanic male with my same job title and geographic location. Even worse, over my entire working life, it was calculated that discrimination will cost me $861,734.52.

The women at Bethlehem Shelter all had different stories yet the same story. A hard life, bad luck and few resources. Many had job interviews and a local charity outfitted women with everything they would need from clothing down to makeup. But starting a new life from scratch is no easy task.

No matter how nice the staff and residents, how clean the building or how nice the food, the shelter was still just that to me. Yet my roommate told me it was far nicer than her previous living conditions. At retirement age herself, she said her elderly mother was abusive and then had kicked her out. She was forced to move all of her belongings into storage and move into the shelter. For her, getting a job is not an option. She spent her entire working life in an office resulting in arthritis, severe carpal tunnel, and a bad back. And, though her health problems are likely the result of occupational repetitive motion stresses, it is unlikely she will be compensated for sacrificing her body and future livelihood for her job.

Like many shelters, this one had rules that told its all-female residents when to get up, when to eat, when to leave and even when to shower. Whether or not the rules were there for the benefit of residents, it reduced them to children. One sign reminded everyone that the showers were for washing hands, brushing teeth, while the showers were for bathing. Entering a shelter means checking your privacy, pride and self-determination at the door. Surely shelters can do a better job. How is one to gain self-esteem and the confidence to rise above homelessness and poverty and to take care of one’s self if shelters treat residents like children with no rights or freedoms?

My roommate told me of the night she was woken up well past midnight by an unexpected new roommate entering her room. In her half-asleep state she thought the tall and broadly built woman was a man entering her room. Many at the shelter did not understand why she was angry. But she did not need to explain her anger to me. I understood. Even though she did not have the right to say who could or couldn’t be her roommate, she at least deserved the courtesy of being told a new roommate was about to arrive.

Many women stay in the shelter, get a job and get back on their feet for good. But many others, I was told, find themselves within reach of their goal and then intentionally sabotage their chances of success. It was suggested to me that after a lifetime of low expectations, sometimes the possibility of success and the accompanying responsibilities is just too far outside the comfort zone. Much like those who spend years in prison become institutionalized, so too are women who spend years being told they are not good enough or deserving enough to have a good home and a good job.

A home is not a luxury only for the beautiful and the rich. It is a basic human right. Shelters are at best a Band-Aid. We need permanent solutions in the form of more affordable housing.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Home sweet parking lot

Irwin, PA-North Versailles, PA, 7.6 miles

Though I am not as fearful of spending the night sleeping outside as I was at the start of my trip, it remains stressful. There is a strategy in finding a location that is safe and neither too dark nor too light. Earlier today I turned down an offer to stay with someone who lived nearby, and walked past hotels without stopping. So, when the sun went down, I decided to sleep behind a church for the night.

I have a tent and a sleeping bag–I am equipped to spend the night camping. But this is not really camping. There is no campfire with friends or roasted marshmallows. This is the option of last resort when you have nowhere else to go. And I can be thankful that unlike so many who sleep on the streets out in the elements, I am dry and warm–albeit uncomfortable.

I can only imagine that living in a constant state of homelessness is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I am doing this for a night. Millions of Americans each year become homeless because they have nowhere else to go.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

No loitering

Greensburg, PA-Irwin, PA, 8.1 miles

Loitering is not my idea of a good time. And I doubt most people enjoy loitering. But, when you are homeless, it is a way of life.

Since I’ve begun this journey I’ve spent hours loitering. I’ve loitered at Panera, at Starbucks and McDonald’s. I’ve spent time lingering far too long in parks, libraries and along the side of the road. There is nothing quite so conspicuous as loitering with a massive backpack.

So today, even as my ankle protested, I put one foot in front of the other and began walking. Not because I wanted to, not because my ankle was OK, but because the shame of being seen loitering yet again was too much for me.

No matter what people will say, myself included, you stare at loiterers. And, though you may feel bad for them, you want them to move along. Countless cities and towns across the country have enacted laws that make it illegal to loiter forcing homeless people to become invisible.

According to a July 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Homes not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, numerous cities have enacted laws that have prohibited activities ranging from loitering to sitting in certain areas to panhandling in an attempt to target the homeless.

“Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.” the report states. Further, a study by UCLA released in September 2007 found that Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.

Of the 235 cities surveyed for the report: 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering city-wide. Fortunately the Supreme Court has overturned several loitering laws for being unconstitutionally vague and violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Though I did not fear being arrested for loitering at the shopping center, I certainly felt ashamed. A homeless man in Greensburg, Pa., I had shared my dinner with a few days ago said he had gotten over that long ago. Perhaps out of necessity you let go of the embarrassment of being homeless. It had not yet left me–I felt deeply conscious of what other people thought.

Whether or not he felt self-conscious in his loitering, and regardless of whether the Supreme Court has found the laws unconstitutional, that has not stopped police from harassing those forced to live on the street. And unfortunately I learned this first-hand in Greensburg when I was arrested for disorderly conduct as I sat shoeless in the Amtrak station.

The report cites numerous examples of homeless individuals being arrested for allegedly loitering. In the summer of 2005, at a free public event at Riverfront Park in Little Rock, Ark., various businesses were giving away free samples of their merchandise to the public. Vendors encouraged homeless people to take free samples but officers of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department told the homeless individuals, including a handicapped man at a picnic table, that they had to leave the event immediately or be subject to arrest for loitering in a park.

“Homeless people are no longer allowed to be visible.” –A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

And Amtrak, whose Greenburg, Pa. station was the site of my arrest for disorderly conduct for refusing to provide police with my identification, has been found guilty of ejecting the homeless from Penn Station. The lawsuit, Streetwatch v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 875 F. Supp. 1055 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) challenges the Amtrak police’s policy of arresting or ejecting persons who appeared to be homeless or appeared to be loitering in the public areas of Penn Station in the absence of evidence that such persons had committed or were committing crimes. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Amtrak police from continuing to engage in the practice, finding that in light of Amtrak’s invitation to the public, the practice implicated the Due Process Clause.

Arrests, even for minor crimes, can have serious consequences. Homeless individuals are rarely able to pay their fines, and, as a result, many are jailed and end up with a criminal record. Once a person has a criminal record, it is more difficult to get access to housing assistance and other services.

There is some good news. On June 8, 2008, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance repealing a 1946 loitering ordinance. And lawsuit after lawsuit has found loitering laws unconstitutional.

As a society we need to get over our shame, embarrassment and guilt regarding homelessness and take active steps to create more affordable housing. Loitering is a choice but a situation born of necessity. And a jail cell may protect against the elements, but it is not a home.

– by Jennifer E. Cooper

Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down

Day 22–July 25 (rest in Greensburg, PA, 0.0 miles)

I have never understood what it is that empowers some of us to always stand up for what is right, regardless of the consequences, while others stand idly by at the injustices of this world.

While I was at Target in Greensburg yesterday I met John and his young daughter Emily. As I talked with John about my journey and about my encounter with the Greensburg police, he impressed upon his daughter the value in standing up for yourself, even when it is isn’t easy. Emily just smiled but I suspect she will grow into a woman who stands firmly by her convictions.

Most people I spoke with about my tangle with the Greensburg police and subsequent charge of disorderly conduct agreed that what the police had done was wrong, and cheered me for standing up for myself. But there were some who felt that the police have the right to demand identification of innocent citizens they have no reason to suspect of a crime. Now whether the law is on the side of police is immaterial in my mind. It troubles me to think that anyone could think it is OK for those in positions of authority to abuse their power. If it is OK for the police to harass an innocent person, is it also OK for a senator to lie and accept bribes; a president to mislead the public for personal gain, or for a government to prop up businesses on the backs of workers? Yet millions in this country would hesitate to cry foul.

Numerous studies have found a connection between poverty and an increase in involvement in crime, lower levels of education, and reduced self-esteem thus locking people into a repeating cycle of poverty. I can understand how it might be hard to stand up for injustice when you have just worked a double shift and can think only of how to keep putting food on the table and a roof over your head.

Now perhaps I was born stubborn. But I was also raised in a family that taught me to do what is right; to stand up for myself; and always backed me up when I did so. And so I thank my parents for empowering me. But I am also thankful that I was born into a life that gave me the opportunity to stand firmly for what I believe in. So many children are raised in an environment where they are not made to feel valuable; taught that they cannot have the same hopes and dreams as those of means. And it is not hard to see how those raised to think they are lesser humans for being poor would grow to become adults who believe they are not worth more than minimum wage, that they have no value to society. Yes there are some in this world with rare and unique talents. But that is a twist of fate. Those who work hard to keep the wheels of society moving are no less valuable. Those who perform back-breaking work behind the scenes in the least desirable of professions–washing dishes and toilets; slaughtering meat and picking produce; cooking and serving our food; operating cash registers and selling our clothes and an endless array of material goods–are every bit as deserving of a safe and warm place to call home and good health.

It has been more than 70 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed in his second inaugural address:  “I see millions denied education, recreation and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. . . one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Though we have come a long way from the poverty seen during the Great Depression, we are still a nation in which 1 in 3 struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Minimum wage, maximum poverty

rest in Greensburg, PA, 0.0 miles

As of today the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. It is the third and final increase in a phased hike in the minimum wage that began in 2007. Prior to 2007, the minimum wage had not seen an increase since it was set at $5.15 in 1997. With the latest increase someone working full-time 40 hours would earn $15,080 annually. Thirty-one states will have to increase their minimum wages as a result of the July 24 increase, while 19 states and Washington, D.C. already had a minimum wage of $7.25 or higher.

Although a full-time worker at minimum wage would find themselves well above the poverty level (in 2008 the poverty threshold in the United States was just under $11,000 for a single person, $22,00 for a family of four,) often full-time jobs are not available. More than half of all minimum-wage jobs are part-time, forcing workers to take two or three jobs to make ends meet. I can remember working at a local grocery store chain while in high school and college. Help wanted signs were always up even as the store cut the hours of existing employees to avoid having to pay the benefits that came with full-time employment.

According to the Center for American Progress, prior to the first phased increase in 2007, six million families with children—46 percent of the total low wage-earning families with children—received all of their earnings from minimum wage jobs. At the same time, it took CEOs from the 350 largest public companies, on average, only one hour and 55 minutes to earn the annual pay of a minimum wage worker. The most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show 12.5 percent of the country living in poverty, more than 37 million Americans.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, if one wage-earner holds a job paying the federal minimum wage, that household can afford to spend up to $341 in monthly rent. But there is not a single county in the whole country where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford even a one-bedroom apartment at what HUD determines to be the Fair Market Rent.

Today’s increase in the pay of the poorest Americans is a start. But if we are to make a meaningful reduction in the levels of poverty in this nation, we must do more.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

I fought the law and the law won

Day 20–July 23 (rest in Greensburg, PA, 0.0 miles)

Last night, for the first time since I began my trip, I found myself without a place to stay for the night. I spent an hour on a bench outside the Giant Eagle grocery store talking to a homeless man named Rick while I iced my ankle. From there, I had hoped to spend several hours working on my laptop at Denny’s restaurant. But Google had failed me–the nearby Denny’s had long since gone out of business, and the next closest location was too far away. I toyed with staying at a hotel, but there were none close enough that I could walk to in my injured condition, and it was getting very late. And so, this is how I found myself at the Greensburg Amtrak station at 1 a.m., for the first time being truly homeless.

Unfortunately the Amtrak station is where criminals hang out. At least that must be true or surely the local police force, upon encountering someone on a bench with her shoes off, would have no reason to suspect criminal activity.

I have never before had reason to encounter unfriendly, rude and unprofessional police officers. Yes I have been a nosy reporter at a crime scene; have had my share of speeding tickets; and participated in a protest or two. But I was completely unprepared for the presumption of two Greensburg police officers that I was guilty until proven innocent. I cannot say I think police officers are always in the right, but I am willing to be respectful and I expect the same in return.

The two officers demanded my reason for being in the station, my name and my date of birth. I provided them with an unsatisfactory (in their opinion) reason for being in the train station, my name and then refused to give my date of birth. Whether or not the law requires innocent citizens to prove their identity when there is no reason to suspect they have committed a crime, I was not about to give proof of my identity to two officers seeking to abuse their position of authority.

My tangle with the law at the Greensburg Amtrak station left found me handcuffed to a bench at the Greensburg Police station. Long after the handcuffs were take off my wrists were ringed with red marks and bruises.
My tangle with the law at the Greensburg Amtrak station resulted in my being handcuffed to a bench at the Greensburg Police station. Long after the handcuffs were taken off my wrists were ringed with red marks and bruises.

With my refusal to provide my date of birth, I found myself suddenly handcuffed and hauled off to the police station–not even allowed to put my shoes back on despite the fact that it was raining outside. Once at the police station, I was handcuffed to a bench while the officers performed what was most likely an illegal search of my backpack. They claimed the search was to ensure their safety and make sure that nothing dangerous was coming into the police station. Searches of private property without just cause are clearly prohibited under the Fourth Amendment. I cannot imagine how any reasonable person would suspect I was carrying something hazardous strapped to my back.

As my backpack was being searched, a woman came into the station to report that her boyfriend had thrown hot coffee on their children. Sadly, this did not appear to be a priority. Instead the police continued to threaten me with a list of charges that included trespassing, obstruction of justice, interfering with a police investigation and disorderly conduct. They threatened to hold me overnight until I could be brought before a judge the next morning.

Eventually I was given a ticket for disorderly conduct (a violation only, not even a misdemeanor) and kicked out into the night. The officers told me I had their permission to return to the Amtrak station. Instead, I made my way to a nearby 24-hour gas station where several people I talked with told me that the Greensburg police are well known for pushing the limits of their power. One employee told me that, on more than one occasion, she has been pulled over by police as she walked the three miles to and from her home. The police demanded to know why she was walking. Others shared similar stories of their encounters with the local police.

A joint report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that the criminalization of homelessness is on the rise. In their July 2009 report Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities they found that cities across the country target the homeless by creating laws that make it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, ranging from loitering or eating in public to sitting in certain locations and begging. Others have been harassed, as I was, simply for sitting in a public place.

“Homeless persons have reported being kicked out of bus stations in Little Rock, even when they had valid bus tickets. Two homeless men reported that officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station, even after showing the police their tickets.  In other instances, homeless persons have been told that they could not wait at the bus station ‘because you are homeless.'”–A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Bill Connolly, program coordinator for transitional housing for Westmoreland Community Action, said it is unusual for the Greensburg police to cause problems for the homeless. Typically, Connolly said, the police will call social services and are “friendly and understanding.” The homeless advocacy organization has numerous programs for the homeless including 25 units of transitional housing. In addition, they have a successful neighborhood revitalization program that has renovated or re-constructed homes across the county.

It was 4am before I made my way to the Denny’s on the other side of Greensburg. Exhausted, my rage at the way we treat the less fortunate in this country was reawakened.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Great big melting bags of ice

Latrobe, PA-Greensburg, PA, 11.4 miles

For whatever reason, since I have been walking I have not gone a day without eating ice cream. Some days I find myself stopping for ice cream more than once a day. So when as I came across Peaches ‘n Cream on Route 30 in Greensburg there was little question I would be stopping in. A twist with chocolate sprinkles please.

While I sat and ate my cone a guy at the next picnic table inquired as to my backpack. As it turned out it was the owner, Jim Peach. For the next hour we engaged in a political debate as to whether those who find themselves homeless and in poverty have the means to lift themselves out of their circumstances through sheer hard work. It is a topic I have discussed with many others and am sure will discuss again soon. While I disagreed with Mr. Peach in many ways, I will concede on one point: those who are poor yet unwilling to work hard are not entitled to a handout. He said he is willing to give anyone a meal and a place to stay. But, he said, he expects that in return said person is willing to sweep the floor, wash dishes or work for their supper in some other way. It was his opinion that many in poverty are unwilling to accept low wage work and expect the government to give them a handout.

Though Mr. Peach has a point, his belief that people are not willing to work hard is incorrect. There are millions in this country who work hard at jobs that offer low pay and deplorable working conditions. Millions of people work hard but never get ahead. Many of the opportunities in life come as a result of the economic circumstances into which we are born, with a bit of brains, hard work, and luck tossed into the mix. I cannot blame someone for not wanting to work 80 hours a week just to earn a living that will never reach the level of even lower middle class. Yes there is a certain self respect that comes from hard work and standing on one’s own two feet. But if my options were back-breaking work for 80 hours a week with no chance of getting ahead, or accepting a government check, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t pick the latter.

Later that day I found myself sitting on a bench with a homeless man outside the Giant Eagle grocery store. While I iced my ankle and ate my dinner I shared my food with the man, who first said his name was Dave and later said it was Rick. (He also told me he’d been in the military for 70 years.) For those who think being homeless and living off the government is the easy path, I ask this: how easy is it to spend the night on a bench in front of grocery store under the florescent lighting and stinking of your own urine? It’s no way to live.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper