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