There But For Grace

homeless 1219
Photo from the internet; perhaps originally from Business Insider.

Yesterday’s 40 percent chance of snow flurries turned into a solid Christmas morning snowstorm, which was completely melted off in our new winter normal by midday. It made for a fine Christmas morning, except that I read a story in the Washington Post, and then made the mistake of reading the comments.

I doubt it was intended to be a political story, and I picked it because it seemed like human interest. But the writer, who had the assistance of three other reporters, really did a very poor job and should have been called out by an editor, assuming newspapers have such a thing anymore.

It was a story about a 70-year-old homeless man who wanted to go see the daughter he hadn’t talked to in five years. He needed a bus ticket to get to her house in Virginia, the cost of which was $27. He had 62 cents in his pocket, which he then spent on a cigarette.

The man had apparently had an apartment until his fiancee died several years ago of an aneurysm, and the resulting burial costs pushed him onto the streets. There was mention of about $500 monthly in Social Security, but it was not made clear whether the man is still receiving it.

And it turns out that Washington Post readers aren’t as educated as we all might like to think, because no one seemed to know if you can get Social Security if you don’t have an address. There were lots of opinions, but nothing definitive. Lynn said someone could have a Post Office box, which costs money, but you have to have a physical address attached to the box.

[Neither Lynn nor I were part of the written discussion following this story. I’m not really a fan of anonymous people dropping random thoughts at the end of news stories.]

It would have been very helpful to know if the man still had access to his monthly Social Security.  Likewise, since it was the point of the story, it would have been nice to know if he ever came up with the $27. But the report ended at 5 a.m. Christmas Eve with the man still unfunded. He was a backpack and several blankets richer, thanks to folks who had brought these items to the people in the park. His new coat had a $100 price tag attached to it; his plan was to sell it.

But we don’t know what he did. We know he didn’t follow through on his son’s offer to give him a job for a day so he could earn the $27; the back-up plan was to go to a transportation hub and sell things, possibly beg strangers for money. But we don’t know.

Maybe that was supposed to be the writer’s intention, just to illustrate a man’s small hope and then leave the whole world wondering because that’s what sometimes happens in real life. Or maybe the reporter, with a home to get to, filed the story around midday Christmas Eve and then spent the rest of the day on holiday. Job done.

I was among the several who wondered why the reporter didn’t just pony up the $27, although as a former reporter myself I know you’re not supposed to become the story. And perhaps, after watching the man put his 62 cents toward cigarettes and not make it to where his son had work waiting (also: no explanation of the nature of the relationship between the man and his son, or any of his other children), the reporter may have decided the money would not really go to a bus ticket.

There were a lot of holes in the story, and maybe the editor was also in a hurry to leave for Christmas, but the story probably shouldn’t have run without several more answers being provided. And I probably didn’t need to waste brain cells on such an incomplete effort. But what I really shouldn’t have wasted brain cells on was the comments section.

A couple of commenters found the story “beautifully written,” just so you know; there were endless arguments about Social Security access; there were people who wanted the answers the reporter failed to provide; and then there was the angry troll, who seemed incapable of letting any comment go without a self-righteous tirade.

The troll’s “handle” was Gerrynofishing, which could be a man or a woman, but the aggressive behavior caused me to think of this person as a “him.” Not to make gross generalizations or anything.

I don’t know what Gerry’s intent was, but it thoroughly depressed me to learn, all over again, that there are people like this in the world. I don’t even know why Gerry was reading such a story in the first place, because the very headline, about a man wanting to get to his daughter’s, automatically asks you to lend a sympathetic eye to the piece. And Gerry had no room for sympathy, empathy or kindness. Just a burning rage that there are people such as this homeless man in the world.

Maybe Gerry lives in Russia and doesn’t believe anything he writes, as long as he is can incite Americans. Maybe Gerry lives in the U.S. and doesn’t believe anything he writes, as long as it makes people angry and provokes response. Or maybe Gerry believes everything he writes, because it seemed like it could have been a Libertarian manifesto. “I got mine; everybody else makes their own choices.”

According to Gerry, everything this man has done is a choice that has led him to homelessness. He didn’t need to bury his fiancee, for instance; he could have had her cremated. (Although the reporter didn’t spend an ounce of time on what “burying” actually constituted, so Gerry made a lot of rash assumptions.) Gerry is sure, but provided nothing other than “it comes on a debit card,” that the man has access to his Social Security. I believe Gerry is the one who baselessly accused the man of being a meth addict. Gerry sold his own blood while building up to whatever “good” life he currently leads, so there is no room for understanding¬† people who can’t do the same.

That’s what really got to me. There were plenty of places to find fault with the homeless man, who I’m guessing got nowhere near his daughter’s for Christmas, but to assume that every person who lives on the streets is capable of making a better life for him or herself strikes me as beyond callous. By that same logic, every one of us ought to be capable of doing better than we are, and we could all be billionaires if only we’d make “better” choices.

We, as a human race, are not kind to the poor. Never have been. We fear the mentally ill and eschew the drug addicts. There are many individuals who try to make a difference, including the folks who showed up in the park with blankets, jackets and backpacks filled with food (the homeless man seemed put out that it didn’t come with a gift card) — but then there are the Gerrys of the world, those who have no room for empathy but plenty for scorn and seething anger.

I’m not too worried about the homeless man, who clearly is making choices that don’t help himself. There are people to help him. But people like Gerry worry me a lot, and those are the people I have no idea how to help. Not that he would want it, because he’s making his own great way in the world. But of the two, he is the one who strikes me as the more desperate.





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