Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The New Debtors' Prison, life in NYC's MTA.

Odilia Rivera Santos

Last night, I got on the train and the stench was nauseating. On the left side of the car, there was an elderly homeless woman on the train who had defected on herself and on the left side, all the passengers squished together, accepting this situation as normal. I got off the train and realized although it is cold out, riding my bike and walking makes a lot more sense. This is a quality of life issue. Why does such a rich country have so many mentally ill and elderly persons living on the street unattended and unloved?
As the weather gets colder, in the early morning, in every car in the train, two or three homeless people are sound asleep on the seats, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of those of us still living as visible characters; homeless people become invisible -- we purposely avoid eye-contact and focus on not focusing on their plight. One of the failures of the United States is to care for those not yet 'viable' or those we deem, for one reason or another, as lacking the possibility of becoming viable in society: children, the elderly, and the mentally ill. Children don't pay taxes or vote, so many daycare centers employ individuals with no training in child development or interest in caring for children, the elderly have already done what they were going to do in the world so to speak -- they are retired, and the mentally ill require an enormous amount of support to be well enough to work but they don't receive said report, so there is a high 'recidivism' rate among the mentally ill. And by recidivism, I mean the mentally ill slip back into the same suffering repeatedly due to a lack of a concerted effort to do what is needed to keep them well and functioning. We don't understand how a nurturing supportive beginning, in daycare, leads to a productive and fruitful adult life and a retirement in which individuals are healthy enough to engage with the world and use their life and work wisdom to guide others. Without a solid foundation, we are really building on quicksand.

Children, the elderly and the mentally ill are people society has to care for. It makes sense to consider helping those who cannot help themselves, before a major crisis occurs, as a logical act of compassion, and, for those concerned only with dollars and cents, one that is more cost effective.

As a child, I read everything Dickens had written. A compassionate chronicler of injustices and quotidian life in England, Dickens's writing was so crisp and clear it feels as I am looking through a window especially constructed so I can see life centuries ago. Dickens's father was sent to debtor's prison when the author was twelve years old and he was forced to work. His observations of life served as his MFA in writing and I think if he were alive today, his focus would be on the homeless inhabiting subway tunnels and trains, riding into and out of darkness, in the middle of a night indistinguishable from day, save for the noise of extra commuters.
To me, it seems the new debtors' prison is New York City's subway systems where persons discarded from their homes and discharged from mental hospitals go with the idea they owe society too much to return -- when in fact, it is society that owes them.

For people who are concerned about this situation, here is my advice: do what you can, but remember you can't save the world. Consider creating petitions for the city of New York to help the elderly and mentally ill avoid homelessness, teach a workshop at a homeless shelter or donate some items to a shelter.
I am organizing a book drive to get books for kids in homeless shelters. If you'd like to donate new books for homeless children ages 2 to 17, in Spanish and English, please send me an email.
cantaahora at yahoo.com I will be donating books to Women in Need in NYC, which will distribute them to homeless shelters with kids.


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