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The State of Our Nation 5-12-82
I was searching through my personal archives the other day when I encountered a piece of writing from my youth. I wrote it in 1982 for a creative writing independent study my senior year at Oregon City High School. It was never published anywhere...until now.
After reading this vignette for the first time in 41 years, I now consider it to be my second piece written on the subject of homelessness, even though the man in the piece you are about to read was not homeless as far as I could tell back then. He most certainly would be now.
I say this was my second piece because earlier that month in 1982, I wrote my senior research paper on the phenomenon/crisis of Vietnam vets ending up homeless all across the country. I recently read that paper for the first time since graduation and what struck me was that I included the fact that one of the first official acts of Ronald Reagan's presidency was to defund and thus close all the Vietnam vet street outreach centers that had been operating around the country in the war's aftermath. That decision, made by a draft dodger, killed veterans. And some of the homeless men who didn't die then are still on the streets, now with their brothers and sisters from Afghanistan and Iraq.
I might also add that I had no concept of what homelessness as a senior in high school. Most Americans didn't until Mitch Snyder came along and raised its terrible profile. In 1982, the inflation rate was 18% and the unemployment rate was 8-9%. It was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It began with Reagan and his tax cuts for the rich and defense buildup and cuts to public housing and follows a downward immoral trajectory to the elderly women down my block the other day, who was wearing a red, white and blue crocheted bathrobe, carrying her worldly possessions and some returnable cans, and screaming to herself and the STOP signs.
So, from 41 years ago, a scene from Oregon City that I titled “The State of Our Nation 5-12-82”
A man knocked on our door the other day and asked if he could haul away our papers. He said he had been driving by and noticed that we had a lot of papers in our garage. Personally, I was elated to see the papers go but was dubious of his intentions (our garage had many valuable items). Nevertheless, I agreed and backed the car out had he pulled his truck in. I noticed there was a young woman alongside him in the front seat. The man, around 25, worked quickly and quietly loading up the papers (seven month accumulation).
I asked him if it was for a charity organization and his reply startled me. It turns out that he is unemployed, married, and his unemployment insurance is almost out. He was traveling around the city collecting papers for money. (He gets $22.50 a ton.) I stared at him in complete disbelief wondering whether or not he had any pride remaining. He finished the pile off and reminded me not to give the papers to anybody else. I nodded yes. He drove off and left me standing in the doorway, mouth open, thinking about my future. Is anybody listening?