A tribute to the desperate poor (and a plea for justice)

It was the kind of story that might have qualified as “crazy news” if the subject hadn’t been so tragically sad. You know, the sort of goofy stuff suited for amusing water cooler talk the next morning.

But this was a heartbreaker that could only make us wonder, in grim dismay, about the deteriorating nature of a society gone bad and steadily getting worse.

In St. Claire Shores, Michigan, an elderly homeless man was found dead from hypothermia inside one of those larger, handicapped-accessible porta potties, which he’d stuffed with rubbish in a futile attempt to keep out the killer cold.

Living in next door Wisconsin on Lake Superior, I can certainly relate to how bitterly frigid it must have been, with relentless wind whipping in across open ice.

The victim wasn’t what many regard as a stereotypical street person. An autopsy revealed that he hadn’t abused drugs or alcohol. Furthermore, as the authorities disclosed, he didn’t have a longterm history of impoverishment.

He’d actually lived in a lavish home, but lost it to foreclosure after family finances went sour.

That reminded me of what I’d heard about hobos who hopped freight trains during the Great Depression. Most of them were jobless working stiffs or farmers left ruined by Dust Bowl drought.

But some were former bankers, doctors, lawyers, etc., whose prosperous lives were completely upended by capitalism’s wholesale collapse in 1929.

In the early ’70s, there were a lot of panhandling derelicts in the rough-and-tumble north end of our town, where my wife and I lived in an apartment above a Salvation Army thrift store.

Even though we were pretty poor ourselves, we’d always try to give them at least a quarter whenever they asked. Most were friendly and quite agreeable, including one gentleman whose speech and manner betrayed him as coming from upper-class origin.

Another guy swore he was actually the writer of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night!

Then there was the legless person who pulled himself along with powerful arms on a skate board with thick leather attachment straps. One evening we encountered him in a suicidal mood, and it took our combined strength to keep him from rolling out into oncoming, speeding traffic. He finally settled down . . . but we never saw him again.

There was one wino that we’d always avoid. He was an obnoxious drunk, and we’d cross the street whenever we’d see him staggering our way.

Then, one day as I was sitting on a bus bench, I glanced over at the fellow on the opposite corner. It was that alcoholic, only now he was sober and not at all offensive. We struck up a conversation.

His name was Jim, and he was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not that far from where I’d grown up. He’d had a good life once, long ago. Just how bad things had gotten for him became stunningly clear when he told me how he’d spent the previous winter.

He’d found an opening in the foundation of a frozen pizza factory, through which he managed to squeeze a discarded mattress. It was dark and cold, though not lethally so, since some heat from the production facilities above seeped through.

He befriended a three-legged rat, named Mickey, who would show up each day for the few scraps Jim was able to scrounge and share. One day Mickey wasn’t there. Jim crawled around trying to locate him. After a long search he finally found his only companion, dead. Tears flowed down Jim’s face as he relived his grief.

My eyes were definitely moist as well.

It’s been a harsh winter this year, and right-wing Republican cruelty has made it awful for many.

With slashed food stamp (SNAP) assistance, a stubborn refusal to extend unemployment benefits, and no movement whatsoever to increase America’s poverty-level minimum wage, thousands of our fellow citizens—most down and out through no fault of their own—are suffering in the extreme.

Some will die because Red State governors have rejected Medicaid expansion, resulting in the very ill having no way to meet their urgent health-related needs.

As I think back on my childhood, remembering great fun shared with good friends, I wonder what became of them. Did some build lives devoted to selfish pursuit of personal profit, leaving others to join exploited, impoverished, and maybe now homeless ranks?

Innocence corrupted by personal greed and accompanying social irresponsibility is a hard reality to contemplate.

Even more so, the hard lives it gives rise to.

We can, we must, do better . . .

Dennis Rahkonen of Superior, Wisconsin, has been writing progressive commentary with a Heartland perspective for various outlets since the ’60s.

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