Surfers and swimmers

Brendan Walsh

December 13, 1990|By Brendan Walsh

Here on Crocker Street, we feel as if we have stepped into a morass of problems of such depth and gravity that they make our meager gifts of bread and coffee seem about as helpful and effective as a Popsicle in hell.

Jeff Dietrich, Los Angeles Catholic worker JEFF Dietrich is speaking painful truth. Our soup kitchens and food pantries, our temporary shelters and health centers for street people, our Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas baskets and food banks this year seem about as useful as his Popsicle.

Dietrich reminds us, moreover, that the Hebrew word for hell is Gehenna -- literally, "garbage dump." So, for the most part, we offer the poor Popsicles in Baltimore's garbage dumps, those streets and alleys where people are not making it, where they might never make it.

In hell the Popsicle melts rapidly. The thirst is not quenched. Instead, the temporary sweetness only makes the thirsty more thirsty.

When we began Viva House 22 years ago, Dorothy Day had reminded us that soup kitchens and food pantries were necessary in times of crisis. They were not meant to be permanent fixtures. The steaming soup bowls, the crusty casseroles and the folding cots were only intended to be short bridges, not eternal resting places. In the late '60s and through most of the '70s, most of the folks who visited us were single men, usually over 40 and only temporarily down and out.

Now there are women and children, legions of them, living hand to mouth, doubled-up in houses, waiting for the bureaucrats to announce the beginning of the "homeless season." The government seems to believe that it is a short season, running from mid-November until the end of March.

Right now the news isn't hopeful. Temporary aid has become the permanent solution. Catholic Charities is constructing a $1.4 million "state of the art" soup kitchen. In East Baltimore people are proud to announce that 10,000 Thanksgiving dinners were served. A few weeks ago people were arrested at City Hall for demanding the same things that were demanded a decade ago -- a few more beds, a few more crumbs.

In a Christmas reflection, the late Thomas Merton described places like Baltimore as "demented inns" where Jesus is not welcome, where the "rich are filled with more things and the poor are turned away empty." A recent study points out that producer service and research jobs (finance, medicine, engineering and law) comprise 40 percent of our total employment. At the same time, we have lost thousands of "blue-collar" and unionized jobs. The port of Baltimore is an example. It lost 40 percent of its cargo volume in the '80s and employs 60 percent fewer workers than in 1970.

People who used to earn wages in the factories and steel mills are now idle. We have become, as Harvard economist Robert Reich puts it, a city of "surfers" and "swimmers." Many of the "surfers," those in the service and research jobs, are riding the waves splashing the shores of the Inner Harbor and nearby "gold coast." They furnish their condominiums, entertain in them, and life is grand. The "swimmers," those who are a pay check away from the streets or already on the streets, are beginning to drown. The harbor is polluted for them. If they can get one of the few available jobs, it will often we be in retail sales or in the tourist industry -- cleaning up after the surfers.

The sad fact is that many of our citizens have become "expendable labor." They are not needed in the present economic arrangement. So they end up swimming laps, banging into one wall, only to turn around and bang into another one.

We must begin to examine where we are going. Our inability to humanize the technology is brutalizing us. People are disconnected from the earth itself. Children are parceled out to day care centers so that parents can work and tread water. Then we wonder why the family is disjointed and why John and Mary can't read or why they become emotional basket cases. There's no talk about ending the homeless crisis with permanent housing or of providing the hungry with the wherewithal to feed themselves.

Each time we serve a plate of food or assemble a bag of food we know we are swimming against the tide. We need a maximum as well as a minimum wage. We need an economy where interest is not allowed. We need the peace dividend restored and not dumped down the military sewer. We need more than Popsicles and temporary measures. The Baltimore Inn is becoming more and more demented and the innkeepers are turning their backs.

Brendan Walsh represents Viva House in Baltimore.

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