Saturday, January 21, 2012

Passing the Man with the Cardboard Sign

Before the third type of cold far in the negatives where you swear you can hear the high pitched etch and creak of ice, like steel, extending into ice, there are two distinct early stages of cold. Each one is marked by its own auditory experience. Sound changes as it freezes.

In the mild cold just around the point of freezing, fluctuations are enough that the water isn't sure where to go some frozen water returns to vapor, catching sound as it travels the early-winter fog. With mild cold comes downy snow, muffling the sound all the more. Then the mercury drops and moisture freezes and falls. Tiny, reflective flakes form and fall all at once and then leave the air clear of moisture when sound takes on a ragged, hard edge, and the cold bites at the skin.

It was on a day like the second type I saw a weathered man off the side of a busy street, along the entryway to the Meijer super-market gripping a sign that read: Homeless Hungry Please Help.

I was on my way to Plumb's grocery store with my little boy in the back of the car signing something about farts.

Once per year, around this time, a friend of mine calls me and tells me that Plumb's is having its massive annual meat sale. Pork chops for as little as a dollar a pound. New York strip steaks for 2.99 a pound...which is about as much as regular ground beef is, normally. So each year we go to Plumb's and buy 10 pounds of these steaks, we split up the cost and the portions and then we stuff our freezers with steak for $15. I keep them for company and guests and special occasions.

When I saw the man with the sign I reflected on how many others I'd seen recently. How many more people are holding signs like that over the past couple months. Now, several times a week there's somebody new at the exit of a grocery store, sanding at a slow moving median. Looking weathered with hard skin.

I drove for a little bit with my mind nagging at me saying "Oh COME ON! You can't just do NOTHING". I had no dough so I pulled into the nearest convenience store to get foods. The boy and I made a quick run through: hard sausages, crackers, trail mix. I put them into a plastic bag and threw in two 8 hour hand warming packs I found in my glove compartment. Then we circled back around to where the man was. He was no longer there.

Too little, too late.

I like to imagine somebody picked him up and brought him next door to Russ's for some soup or an olive burger. But perhaps he just walked into Meijer to get out of the rugged, hash cold.

The number of folks with the signs has been on the rise. And for I wondered, "Why now? Why all of a sudden?" Homelessness is on the rise. And it's likely to continue to rise.

All in all, the conditions are right for national homeless rates to start rising soon, according to a new report that examines many of the large-scale economic factors that force people out of their homes. The report, published Tuesday by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, suggests that a delayed wave of pain may be coming for low-earning renters and homeowners.

"It takes a while for people to become homeless," said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. "They don't enter the shelter right away."


For homelessness to start climbing just as the unemployment rate begins to deflate might seem counterintuitive. But such is the nature of homelessness, which tends to lag behind other macroeconomic trends.

Add to that the crushing effects of states slashing public assistance.

Michigan recently and retroactively killed cash assistance for individuals who had been receiving it for more than 48 months. Over 600 FAMILIES in Muskegon alone lost their sole means of paying for housing.

Now, as many have predicted, homelessness appears to have surged.

In the short term, I'm not clear on how to respond to that. I'm not clear on how to help each person along the streets each day.

When finding the man with the sign had gone, I put the bag in the back of the car thinking maybe I'd save it for the next person I pass.

The boy and I turned the car around and drove to Plumb's to pick up our five pounds of new york strip steak.

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