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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/27/15

Postcard from the End of America: Center City, Philadelphia

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"How often does this happen?"

"A lot! Sometimes I go there at 9:30, to try get a good spot in line, and I still get turned away at times. One lady who works there, her name is Shelly, she's really nice. If she's working, she'll let you come inside even if you've been turned away, and she'll tell everyone, 'I can call outreach to get you placed in another shelter,' but if you don't want this to happen, you can go back outside and figure it out, you know.

Other shelters around the city are dangerous, though. Broad Street Ministry is the only one that's kind of clean, and kind of safe. Although I did get my phone stolen in there, there are no rapes. Broad Street Ministry is also coed. Most of them only allow just men, just women, or just women with children. There are maybe two or three shelters in the city that are coed. An issue that a lot of people have, and that I have, is that I'm out here with my boyfriend, my fiance. A lot of people are out here with their husbands. If outreach picks you up, they will separate you. Normal people have this misconception about outreach as this great thing, but so many times, I'm just sitting out here with my boyfriend, trying to earn enough money to eat, but a police officer or a normal person will call outreach. You can think of outreach as the homeless police. That's basically what they're out here for. They'll come up to you and they'll tell you, 'You know, you can't sit here.' If it's below 32 degrees, outreach will scour the city for every homeless person and harass them. It's called Code Blue. Basically, you can be outside and freeze to death, as long as you're not trying to make money. They'll tell you, 'Get up, I can either take you to a shelter or you can move, but you can't sit here.'"

Granted, if it's zero degree or so, Code Blue can save lives, but 32 is nothing to most homeless people. For the last two weeks, it's been well below freezing nearly each day, so outreach had a pretext to sweep many people like Angel off the streets even if they'd rather be left alone, "If you go to these shelters, you lose control. You don't control whether you end up in Bumblefuck, North Philadelphia, where you don't want to be, and then you'll also have to figure out how to get back to Center City or wherever you want to be, wherever you feel safe. It's not like they drop you off in North Philly and give you five tokens [for public transit], so it's like, OK, I can sleep inside and be warm in this shitty, dingy shelter for a night, but in the morning, how am I going to get back here?"

Shelters are often in the worst neighborhoods, obviously, since middle or upper class people, even super liberal ones, don't want poor folks, much less the homeless, anywhere near them. Though they may mouth fair wage, fair trade or even absolute egalitarianism, they keep themselves way clear of anyone with bad teeth and worse shoes. Orwell wrote, "Sometimes I look at a Socialist--the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation--and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed. The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard." Harsh statements like that have made Orwell a perennial target for many mojito sipping, armchair revolutionaries.

For the last year or so, I've been hounded by a cyber heckler who's determined to prove that I'm a slumming bourgeoisie who actually hate the people I talk to and write about. Though I've tried to ignore this gentleman, I must admit that it wounds, tickles and saddens me to be so denounced. I don't consider myself above anyone and, short of the homeless, I'm as poor or even more pinched than most of the people I mingle with, and it's not like I enjoy having my checks bounced or going to bed dressed like I'm hiking up a mountain. Always scratching lottery tickets, the empty pocketed dream of becoming millionaires, and if I saw a few bucks lying on the gum-blotched sidewalk, I'd knock you out of the way, too. Finders, keepers! Though I don't festishize poverty nor idealize brokeasses, I will continue to grind out these Postcards that no one has commissioned simply because I need to make sense out of what's happening to people who resemble me in so many ways. Crammed into this nauseating steerage, we exhale our cheap beer breath on each other. Another commenter even suggested I should depict perfumy places like Nantucket, to balance out the picture. Sure, buddy, I'll book a room there for a week, but first, I need to get over my fidgeting over whether to order a $1.12 cup of coffee from McDonald's, and that's before tax.

OK, enough of that interruption. Sorry. I asked Angel, "Do they feed you at these shelters?"

"Not always, and if they do give you dinner, then they won't give you breakfast. It's usually just one meal."

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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