Monday, April 4, 2011

This Way To the Camps

Neil Gaiman, the British author perhaps most famous in this country for his amazing graphic novels, has a recurring character who likes to question the existence of words. Is there, for example, a word for the sound pollen makes as it is being harvested? Or for the feel of moving planets? What
about the unwanted concurrence of events? Why are there missing words in a language as rich and English? Lately, I have wondered whether there is a word for unfortunate things happening to situations that should not exist. 

Let me explain. For the past many years as the economy has taken its toll on those most at risk, many of the homeless and jobless, those struck by misfortune or lacking even a modicum of useful education, have returned to the soil. They establish makeshift camps in outlying areas, in woods, culverts, and under bridges. They erect tarpaulin tents, cook on discarded barbecues, create small and tight-knit societies. Some are alcoholics and addicts, others have serious mental issues, and others still just got a bad roll of the dice. There are few dentists or doctors out there. Many of the campers are construction workers, whose companies shut down, seasonal employees of places like nurseries and landscaping concerns that are no longer hiring, veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are not particularly attractive—living outdoors through a winter is not beneficial to the skin or other organs—and wary of outsiders, for good reason. In many ways, these folks are the reincarnation of the Dust Bowl survivors, and their attempts try to carry on often create great discomfiture among more able citizens.

Point in case, last week saw the eviction of 80 people who have been living for almost a decade near Dale  City, Virginia. The Virginia Department of Transportation, responding to a complaint call from
State Delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R) that the homeless were “walking back to their tents in the dark and crossing the ramp where cars speed around the blind curve,” gave the wood dwellers 48 hours to pack up and leave, destination unknown. When county workers came in to do a clean up, they found about 55 tents as well as sofas, beds, heaters, and a pool table.  In other areas where small populations live outdoors, there are lean-tos, televisions and radios and generators.

That such camps exist is an insult to all that is America. That they exist in one of the most affluent section of the country is a sin. That these communities are destroyed, rendering homeless people even more so, is beyond comprehension.

These are not people accused of any crime other than trespassing on public land. They are not thieves or rapists; they have not stolen your IRA or pillaged your life savings. Their transgression is being
destitute. Ours, on a community, state, and national level, is allowing such poverty to exist and, worse, to believe that putting it out of sight will put it out of mind as well.

I wonder if  Representative Lingamfelter has a handy word to describe all this. And I hope he sleeps well tonight.

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