Many Mansions

…Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room.  ~ Luke 14:21,22

If you had reason to be out on the streets of Louisville before dawn between Monday and Wednesday, September 19-21 you may have glimpsed a knot or two of flashlight-and-clipboard-toting surveyors working in the darkness.  These early-birds, sporting vivid yellow or orange T-shirts were gathering information for the 100K Homes Campaign, a national movement with the aim of finding permanent homes for 100,000 of the country’s most vulnerable homeless individuals and families by July of 2013.  But, while I was a member of one of the 20 survey teams afoot in the city, it’s unlikely I was one of the volunteers you spotted.  My colleagues and I were well off the beaten path, peering into the bushes, following railroad tracks and scaling the slopes of expressway underpasses south of town.

I was an odd duck in the midst of a flock of professional social workers, a curious novice on an information quest of my own.  Exhausted and disillusioned with the artifice in the profession in which I had landed, I resigned my internet marketing job in March to pursue experience and employment in the non-profit sector.  I’m not really sure how the invitation to take part in 100K Homes found me, but I was intrigued from the get-go.  Here was the opportunity to go directly to the source and see where people landed when they fell through the cracks, to uncover clues about why some bounced and some broke, and what kinds of people were offering their hands in help.  It was a chance to see if I would crumble, to see if I had what it took to face unpleasant truths and do what had to be done.  And, yes, it was a chance to make connections and let the housing community know I’m serious about my commitment to this issue.

And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.  ~ Luke 14:23

What a comfort to have this blessing on our efforts from one of the world’s great spiritual teachers, because what we were about to undertake could easily be regarded as a fool’s mission.  Before we left the Wayside Hotel, we signed away our right to sue the campaign for any injuries, received recommendations for avoiding and defusing threatening situations, and heard the warnings about approaching dogs at homeless camps.  Then we headed out into the fog to awaken wary strangers as their uninvited guests.

The campaign had furnished us with maps indicating sites where folks often hunkered down for the night.  At first we suspected that our assigned park was abandoned when our “hellos” went unanswered.  The grounds were litter-free and the landscape was in good condition, giving us no clues as to the whereabouts of anyone sleeping out.  We hiked a fence row beside the highway and found a break in the fence with some nearby evidence of activity.  Loudly, we announced our presence and intentions: no response.  Was it a wise and worthwhile risk to plunge into the gloomy woods with only a narrow means of escape should things go sour?  Nope.  That was pretty much a no-brainer…  We returned to the park content to take one more quick look and call it a night.

It must have been the brief exposure to evidence of human habitation in the woods that made us a bit more savvy about where to look.  A close look under a bridge structure revealed a man wrapped to his neck in a dark material that kept him all but invisible.  He refused our offer of a grocery gift card in exchange for an interview on the first morning, but he crawled out the next day when he decided it was the best way to get us to leave him alone!  Skirting the park on the way to the car, we came upon a copse of trees, circled it, and found a tent tucked way back inside.  The young man in the tent became our first successful survey participant.  Both men reported that they were in good health and indeed their health did appear good enough, under the circumstances.  We left them both seeming somewhat cheered by our visit, an unexpectedly pleasant outcome for me!

Having gone out into the hedges Monday, on Tuesday morning, we proceeded to the highways–the freeway underpass to be exact.  Unlike most folks downtown, who often find refuge near places services are provided, the homeless men with whom we spoke laid low, requiring us to seek them out in their hide-aways.  Amazingly polite for people roused from their beds in the wee hours, three solitary men spoke with us on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.  But getting to them presented a physical challenge.

Our map and information from the previous morning’s contacts directed us down railroad tracks leading to the overpass.  On Monday the young man in the tent had told a tale of children who had gone that way and never returned, and I was a little leery of breaking an ankle running from danger over the cross ties.  My comrades assured me I was a little too gullible and a trip down the tracks was definitely in the offing.  By the time we started the trek I was enjoying the adventure, recalling the family stories of uncles who hitched freights as children and lived to tell the hair-raising stories.  How else would I, at better than half a century, have the chance to experience anything so daring as legally trespassing on the train tracks unless I had my social services street gang beside me in the dark and the local beat cop talking on the phone with our team leader?

Crossing 20 feet of trestle while looking over my shoulder for a big, white light proved to be a small potatoes compared to a climb up–and especially down a 45° incline from the top of the freeway underpass.  I’m glad this was not my first exposure to the homeless campsites.  We had been spared a view of the particulars of living conditions until this time, and even in the light filtering dimly from the street above, the unpleasant odor rising from dirty carpet pads, mats and old mattresses, and the occasional roach and centipede drove the miserable reality of these circumstances home.  A sore on the head of one of our interviewees prompted a volunteer to wonder if he had banged it sitting up too quickly under the low clearance of the concrete roadbed.  Nonetheless, it was easy to understand why these men had chosen the location.  The spot was private, relatively warm, and dry in spite of the rain that had fallen just the day before.

Perhaps the most troubling discovery our team made was a deserted camp with an abandoned baby carrier and playpen.  Clearly the inhabitants had been gone for sometime, but the image those artifacts represented of an infant living at such terrible risk is beyond nightmares.  Needless to say, if the family had been discovered in that space, intervention would have been imperative.  Wisely, the teams were assembled around seasoned veterans who knew exactly what steps to take had we encountered an emergency.

We returned to Wayside in the hope that more attention to remote sites such as those we had investigated would be forthcoming.  It is clear that not all homeless people in Louisville choose to live in downtown.  As the economic conditions continue to deteriorate in this country, more and more people will find themselves struggling on the streets.  What may look like humble accommodations looks like a mansion compared to the piles of rags many people are calling home in our city.  100K Homes seeks to make a difference by providing  housing for the most vulnerable.  Room in our hearts for those in dire straits is the first accommodation we need to make.  Let us resolve to prepare that place.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  ~John 14:2

P. S. This experience made a big impression on me!  I’ll have more to say later.
Thanks,
Fiddlehead

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Shrinking Government

What can we do to  make it feasible to shrink the government, whether local, state or federal?  Plenty.  I believe the way to make governments small and more efficient is to work them out of much of their jobs.  Here, in no particular order, are a few of my do-it-yourself ideas:

  • Write your elected officials original, clearly articulated letters and/or emails that state your concerns backed up with research, resources and specific examples.  It’s expensive if they have to guess what you are thinking, or undo or abandon work already begun.  The squeaky wheel that gets the grease can also spare the cost of a lot of expensive diagnostics.  Furthermore, if they are inclined to ignore you and your needs, you have the beginning of a paper-trail to use in an effort to replace them with a more sympathetic public servant.
  • Write well-informed, articulate, intelligent letters to the editorial pages of your news paper or news outlet of choice.  Don’t encourage the ignorant, bellicose lurkers-without-lives you may find there by acknowledging their responses.  Keep your eyes on the prize.
  • Network.  Make lists of like-minded people you encounter, and keep in touch.  Share energy, support and community with each other.  You may find your best friends.
  • Volunteer.   We have surrendered most of our responsibilities for the care of our fellow travelers to bureaucracy.  Care without compassion is, to say the least, deficient and a great opportunity for waste and corruption.  If your spiritual understanding includes awareness of the indwelling of a divine spirit, consider these words of Christ:  “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’  The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
  • Guide, nurture and discipline your children–with love certainly, but don’t leave them floating out there to figure things out for themselves.  Think before you parent and know, even if you are not a biological parent, you are a spiritual one.  Even if you don’t like Hilary Clinton, it’s still true that it takes a village to raise a child.  Study up on compassion and forgiveness, and wean yourself off of judgement and punishment.
  • Buy local first.  When you take into account the huge sums of money national chains drain from your local community the little extra you may pay a local independent business owner will pay you back in dividends when they reinvest in the place you live.
  • Headquarter your business in your community and put your neighbors to work.  Don’t you hate commuting, air pollution and high gas prices?  So do your neighbors.  Find office space or production facilities close to your home.  If there are none, ask the local bankers and your councilman why that is so.  Shake them up!  Are you tired of vandalism and kids loitering and cruising in your community?  Put a few of them to work in maintenance, entry level or as interns right in their own neighborhood and see if it doesn’t give their aimless friends a whole lot to aim for.
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle.  Think of all the infrastructure, services, resources, energy and bureaucracy necessary to insure safety, inspect, permit, import, warehouse, transport and clean up after all the unnecessary gadgets, clothing, “toys”  conveniences and packaging we are consuming.  Think of the wars for oil and the unsavory characters we deal with to insure markets for American multinational corporations and access for resources and outsourcing.  How much does it cost us to pay the Pentagon to support runaway consumerism?
  • Take care of your health.  Exercise and eat a healthy diet.  Stop smoking, using drugs recreationally and alcohol to excess.   There are so many ways ill health and damaging lifestyle choices impact the size of government I don’t know where to start, and I’m afraid that once I did I might go on forever.  Feel free to use your imagination.
  • And, oh yeah, vote.  In every election you (legally) can.  Make an effort to meet the candidates and know what they stand for.  It is not hard to do in Louisville.
Invitations to comment on this post went out to District 22 Metro Councilman Robin Engel, Mayor Greg Fischer, Ky. State Senator Dan Seum and Kentucky 3rd District Congressman John Yarmuth.  This humble blog could certainly benefit from any contribution of their wisdom!

Speak out, love your neighbor, and work for the common good!

Power to the people,

Fiddlehead

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The Expendable Post

I’m wading into this.  The Fern Creek Blog, that is.  It seems appropriate, don’t you think?  Let’s see if I can pull off something worth keeping.

I’m your neighbor here just off Beulah Church Road.  I’ve been here four years, arriving just before the economy tanked, in July 2007.  When I moved from St. Matthews I expected a wave of down-sizing near-east-enders to roll into The Creek right behind me.  Sure enough, Fern Creek is swollen with new residents, but the urban community spirit I expected them to bring with them never arrived.

Now, why does “a little country place” like Fern Creek need imported urban community spirit?  Because without it, Fern Creek is rapidly being blighted with suburban sprawl.  It has been left to the discretion of developers primarily motivated by profit and driven by competition rather than the interest of the neighborhoods, and city planners content to leave Cornerstone 2020 unimplemented. Fern Creek is often choked with impatient commuters, funneled out of one exit per development into a single creeping mass, anxious to get some place else in town where the jobs pay a living wage.  At evening rush, they bypass our local retail and restaurant franchises and head elsewhere for unique shopping, dining and entertainment experiences offered in walkable, navigable neighborhoods by organized and creative Louisville independent business people.  Fern Creek community pride cannot be simple chest thumping if we are going to compete economically with the rest of Metro Louisville.  We must find it in our selves to become community activists.

Of the many issues that concern me one stands out as a starting point: Fern Creek needs a heart, a town center we can all identify and take pride in.  We are fast losing the opportunity to claim a central green space for Fern Creek.  Rural families experience no shortage of fields, woods and streams.  But Fern Creek has not been “out in the country” for a long time.  I moved to Louisville from Lexington in 1978 after getting my B.A. in Art from EKU.  Soon after relocating I remember driving with a college friend out to his parents farm way out in southeast Jefferson County.  It was after dark, and I was scared to death we were going to hit a ‘possum, a groundhog or a raccoon on Bardstown Road before we got to the place where his headlights picked Beulah Presbyterian out of the blackness.  After we turned onto Seatonville Road, I wondered if I would ever see civilization again.  How things have changed!

Hidden behind the high school with a single small entrance on a residential street we have Fern Creek Park.  It is dominated by, first, the huge parking lot, then the tennis courts and baseball diamonds.  It has little provision for the community to gather and refresh themselves by simply enjoying the outdoors: few shade trees and park benches and no bandstand or grassy lawn adequate for an outdoor performance or movie.  There is only the most minimal landscaping and no paved trails exist in the woods.  The little stream there could provide the community with much-needed access to the calming, healing effects of flowing water if it were taken under the wing of caring volunteers and wise community leaders.  I’m curious if the movers and shakers in Fern Creek have considered approaching the owners of the Settler’s Trace property that boarders the park on the east about purchasing it and using it to expand the park to Bardstown Road.  A wisely designed expansion of the park with a beautiful Bardstown Road entrance could be the face of Fern Creek for the rest of the city–and an anchor for our civic pride.

Do you have a choice of location for a central green space?  If you are interested in becoming a Fern Creek Community Activist, I want to hear from you!  Please leave me a comment.

Thanks,

Fiddlehead

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