Apr 25, 2017

Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Public Space and Passing for Wealthy

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog.

Even though there are almost no public bathrooms in downtown Raleigh, I can stride through any restaurant or coffee-shop towards their bathroom and nobody would think to stop me. This is because I pass for wealthy. I am white, have all my teeth, wear clothes that I picked out, and am usually reasonably clean. A barista sizing me up in the doorway would conclude that I am middle-class, could afford to eat there, and am probably hurrying to a table where I am meeting a friend. Passing for wealthy also carries the manipulative privilege of Threatening to Complain. If the barista were to accost me and tell me that they didn’t have a public bathroom, I could throw a hissy fit and announce that they had just lost a faithful customer. Just to clarify, I have never done this, but only because I have never been stopped when using the bathroom in a restaurant.

Not only am I culturally allowed to be in this public place, my privilege allows me to push its boundaries with impunity. This has made me realize that the concept of “public space” really only applies to the middle-class, or those who can pass as such. Before I started working at Love Wins I was unaware that somebody could be arrested for being homeless, but it is a frustrating reality. If you live outside there are very few places where you are legally allowed to be (if any.) If you are caught sleeping on the street, in the park, behind a building, in a yard, under an overpass, or anywhere else, you can be charged with second-degree trespass. North Carolina law states that, “A person commits the offense of second degree trespass if, without authorization, he enters or remains on premises of another: (1) After he has been notified not to enter or remain there by the owner, by a person in charge of the premises, by a lawful occupant, or by another authorized person; or (2) That are posted, in a manner reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders, with notice not to enter the premises.” [source] This faulty logic is extrapolated to other charges such as prostitution. Criminalizing prostitution does nothing to help solve the problem of exploitation or make the community safer; it only removes vulnerable people from public view and forces them further underground.

Every morning before we open up the center, I look through mugshots from the night before to see if anybody from our community was arrested. If I recognize somebody, I feel concern rather than fear because I know that so many of the charges have to do with simple lack of privacy. My friend Tom was excited to go out drinking on Friday night, just like the rest of Raleigh, but because he didn’t have money to go to a bar or throw up in an Uber he was arrested for second-degree trespass and public intoxication. If a public intoxication charge was really just about being drunk in public there would be no beer festivals, jam band concerts, or bars at sports arenas. The less money/privilege you have, the less privacy you have. Living a life in public means going to a public library to use a computer, taking showers in public facilities, eating at a crowded soup kitchen, riding the bus, and being unwelcome in public places because you can’t pass for wealthy.

As a kid I thought that churches always remained open so that people could sleep on the pews and “take shelter” in that romantic Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame way. There is also the sentimental perception that homeless people construct tiny houses out of cardboard and sleep in alleys. In reality, conspicuous poverty is criminalized in cities. It’s why so many people take to the woods with tents, tarps and sleeping bags instead of spending the night in crowded, dangerous shelters that kick you out early in the morning. I know that having my own space makes me feel more human, less anxious, and able to recharge before I go back out into the world. If that safe space was taken away from me I would certainly endure driving rain, camps of strangers, and raccoon roommates in order to get it back.

Living literally “on the street” is in some ways an oxymoron; if you are homeless you are not allowed to exist anywhere in public unless you are on your feet, on your way to somewhere else. And even if you are given space, it can be taken away just as easily. My friend Jade, who has a permit to stand by the side of the road and “fly a sign” to ask for spare change, is told by police to make herself scarce when a politician or celebrity comes to town. They don’t want her presence, a visual reminder of poverty and inequality, making Raleigh look bad.

The core of Love Wins’ mission is to offer “a place to be,” where everyone is welcome. It’s the first phrase out of my mouth whenever people come in to ask about our program (there isn’t one) or services (they vary depending on our resources.) People come here to take naps, sit and talk, gossip with their friends, drink coffee, talk to themselves in the mirror, make PB&Js, charge their phone, use the landline, read, chain-smoke outside, soliloquize to anybody who will listen, take a sink-bath in the bathroom, and a multitude of other things. We do this because one of the most immediately apparent realities of homelessness is that no public space is meant for you, not even the sidewalk. You will be hustled out of coffee-shops, public bathrooms, stoops, buses, churches, libraries (if you fall asleep or sit on the floor), and told to keep moving or you will be arrested. But we believe that existence should never be a crime.

Feb 17, 2017

Our Morning Coffee

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog. I am working there for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

Every afternoon at closing, I make a 100-cup pot of coffee and set it on a timer to brew at 8 am the next morning. If I falter or am forgetful at any point in the process – if the timer isn’t set correctly, the pot isn’t switched on, the filter isn’t cleaned out – then I have to tell a crowd of tired, cold, and hungry community members that it will be another 45 minutes until they can have their first cup of coffee. It also means that I will have to stumble around until then, getting hygiene kits and putting away donations in a bleary haze. Coffee is very important.

In many ways, coffee is the great equalizer. A senator needs his morning Starbucks with the same ardor and intensity as the person on the sidewalk outside the Starbucks waiting for his spare change. It’s the first requirement for an office, an A.A. meeting, a church reception, a soup kitchen, a diner, a college dining hall, and for Love Wins. When I meet somebody who is visiting us for the first time, I always offer them a cup of coffee from the kitchen. It’s an invitation to relax, stay a while, and partake of our community in a small but significant way. The warmth of the cup in your hands imparts a feeling of comfort and stillness while the subtle lift of caffeine makes staying awake a little easier.

There’s cultural meaning encoded in a cup of coffee. It’s what you drink when you need to wake up, focus, and get things done. I have a cup of coffee beside me as I write this. It helps you to face the challenges of the day, to feel like a functioning adult. Your coffee can also tell a lot about your class and attitudes. We use powder creamer for our coffee, and pour sugar from a plastic jug. Carrying a latte in a white paper cup gives a much different impression than holding a ceramic mug filled with drip coffee. At Love Wins, we all drink from the same pot and pick from the same gallimaufry of donated mugs.

Since the function of our space is primarily a place to be during the day, we don’t promise to have a great many amenities. We will always have a public agender bathroom, space to take a nap, books to read, a community phone; and we will always have coffee, creamer, sugar, peanut butter, jelly, and bread. These are the building blocks of hospitality, from which we can make Love Wins an open and welcoming place for all.

Jan 19, 2017

Notes from a Southern Sojourn

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog. I am working there for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. 

It snowed in Raleigh and I missed it. I was up in Vermont, visiting family for the holidays and catching up on sleep. I read more and drank less coffee. I was getting chilling reports of black ice and freezing temperatures from my friends back in Raleigh and getting so worried for the land without snowplows and -tires. I dug through boxes of storage in my mom’s house to find my winter coat in order to survive winter in New England and the South. Of course, since I’ve had it here with me we have had 40-60° weather. Such is life.

As I was going around Vermont catching up with friends and ex-co-workers, the one question everyone kept asking me was, “Raleigh! What is that like?” The first thing I always say is that the food is better in Raleigh. We Northerners still haven’t gotten down the delicate art of deep-frying things (although we do try) and there’s always the irritating Puritanical strain of health-conscious asceticism that is blessedly absent from the South. I can’t describe my delight at coming to the Love Wins Wednesday lunch and hearing men encouraging women to eat more. There seems to be comparatively more tolerance for fat here, which makes my heart glad.

Since living here I have tried fried okra, frozen custard (shout out to Goodberry’s,) North Carolina BBQ (both Eastern and Western,) pimento cheese dip, collard greens, and fresh Krispy Kreme. The savory aroma of Bojangles fried chicken biscuits greets on the morning of our weekly staff meeting, bleeding grease from a paper bag. While working here I have also become reacquainted with the dependable, essential goodness of peanut butter and jelly. I can’t afford to go out to eat much at all, so whatever gastronomic adventures I’ve had have been someone else’s treat or an irresponsible splurge. I often fall back on PB& J, apples, and coffee.

Language was the main difference I expected when moving to the South. I was not wrong about that. I still occasionally struggle to understand the mellifluous, smooth regional accent with its dropped suffixes and meandering vowels. I’ve also learned that a “toboggan” is a winter hat, rather than an old-timey sled and have caught myself saying, “Get you some of that.” Honey, sugar, sweetie, and baby are pervasive and not worth getting indignant about. I also hear them used interchangeably between genders, which makes me feel a bit better. My favorite thing is a bumper sticker our director Hugh has on his car that reads, “Y’all means all”. It’s a protest of the absurd HB2 transgender bathroom law, but has a greater message of equality. “Y’all” is far superior and gender-inclusive than the inadequate “you guys” I learned to say while growing up.

In Vermont, you will see a white guy in camo jackets with salt-stained boots, dragging on a cigarette as he walks by you without making eye contact. At most, you will get a brief, tight smile. In North Carolina you will see the same thing but there’s a higher likelihood the guy will be non-white, the boots will have mud instead of salt, and you might get a deferential nod in your direction. People actually smile at each other on the street here; it still freaks me out. But I also like it. If somebody doesn’t hear me, they will say, “Ma’am?” in a way that makes me feel like a schoolmarm. It’s a whole different world of mannerisms here.

Hospitality is another thing that I have become extremely conscious of. There’s still hospitality in the North, like at the Crossroads diner in White River Junction where my 5-year-old sister has called one of the servers Aunt Julie since she was a baby. I wouldn’t say that people in New England are ungracious, but definitely more aloof. The word “hospitality” is not used much, but people are people and relationships will always matter. However, practicing hospitality in everything you do is a distinctly Southern thing, and a principle that informs the social service agencies I have come into contact with here. Maintaining relationships, remembering someone’s name, putting out plenty of coffee and food, and doing little extra things to make people feel comfortable in your space goes such a long way for us at Love Wins. I’m beginning to think that it’s one of the best basic human practices to cultivate.