An Example of Selflessness for Society to Embrace
by Pat LaMarche
I met Bill because — well frankly — because he fit the bill. He was a recovering alcoholic who had been homeless off and on for a decade, maybe longer. Bill was a former broadcast professional turned Wall Street tycoon who shattered his own existence with addiction. He eventually cleaned up his act so entirely that he landed a job in one of the shelters he’d gone to for protection when he couldn’t protect himself. He counseled others — drawing from his own experiences — and encouraged them to live a better more productive life.
I’m fortunate to be a people person. I love being with all sorts of people and I believe everyone is equal in measure while admittedly not equal in opportunity. But Bill had it all. Looking into his face the very first time we met I was first struck by his good looks: looks that had weathered into a different but still striking kind of handsome. He was witty and smart and compassionate and I knew instantly why he had been recommended to serve on a panel to dispel society’s misconceptions about the poor. Bill wasn’t going to lie to anyone about anything. He’d stopped lying to others maybe the same moment that he’d stopped lying to himself.
When Dennis Marble — the director of the shelter where Bill lived and later worked — recommended that I meet with Bill to see if he would be a good ambassador from the underclass to the middle class, I was hesitant. A former alcoholic who blew his life and career up thereby becoming a burden to society was the stereotype of poverty that I was trying to dispel. I guess I feared that featuring Bill would just reinforce that generalization. But after I met the man I realized that he could be an inspiration to a community. Bill could show the world what a valuable investment even the roughest toughest derelict could be if given enough love and support.
It was Bill that pulled out of the event. Perhaps he shared my initial fear that folks just needed one more example of a guy who was “asking for it” and living on the streets because he couldn’t cope with personal responsibility. Bill didn’t want to screw up the message of our poverty forum by playing into the hands of the ill-informed who figured they already had enough knowledge of the homeless, the hungry, the poor and the unemployed to believe that the U.S. was wasting its resources on them.
Bill wrote me a beautiful letter begging off from the event and I wrote back explaining that I understood.
The forum went off without a hitch. We had a veteran on food stamps and a handicapped man with a post-secondary degree that couldn’t work full time without losing his healthcare. We had a victim of domestic violence who lost her job when she fled her abuser. We had a retiree who could no longer heat his home because his family’s medical expenses were so high. But we had no recovering alcoholic who had it all and threw it all away. No down and out street dweller who came back from the brink to make a difference — and maybe because of that — we had no real bullies picking on the rest of our panel.
That was in May. I spoke at an event for the local homeless shelter this week. Among the people they recognized for their devotion and compassion to the poor was Bill. Although Bill wasn’t there to hear the tribute because Bill died sometime between now and then.
I stared at his picture projected on the wall as they told a story of how he advocated for a troubled young woman just two days before he died. I was stunned. Bill’s death was the final testimony to the plight of the homeless, the unloved and the displaced. He died younger than he should have — people who have endured chronic homelessness do — as many as thirty years younger.
If I could turn back time, I think I would have tried to convince Bill to participate in our forum. Caring about the poor means caring about all the poor, no matter how they got that way. And hiding some of the poor — pretending they don’t exist — probably makes it easier for the bad guys to pretend they’re all asking for it in word or deed; that they’re all hiding something.
I don’t think I could have convinced him though. He wouldn’t have hurt someone else’s chances even if doing so would have improved his own. Ironically that selflessness is the one quality society needs most to learn about and embrace.
Pat LaMarche is the Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. In 2004, she was the U.S. Vice Presidential nominee for the Green Party. During the campaign, she traveled the nation living in homeless shelters and on the streets; the book she wrote about those experiences is Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (Upala Press, 2006). LaMarche writes a regular political column for The Bangor Daily News and contributes to the Huffington Post; hosts The Pulse Morning Show that broadcasts from Maine; and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.