Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Piece in the Bee about the 2015 Interfaith Memorial and the death of a five-month old

An article in the Dec. 29, 2015, issue of the Bee, “For a homeless mom, it’s the worst loss of all” [alternate title: "Erika D. Smith: The tragic story of the brief life of baby Sivam Lekh"] is laudable in that it is one of a series of Bee pieces where homeless people are interviewed or presented by their closest relatives or friends, as opposed to what has been the practice at the Bee (and continues at SNR) to present homeless people near-exclusively through the eyes of homeless-charity administrators.

I do have a few problems with the item – described as an “Opinion” piece in the online Newsbank where I fetched it at the Central Library.

The beginning of the piece is rather odd. It reads thus:

"Sivam Lekh, 5 months.”

At the words, a gasp, or maybe it was a groan, rose from the pews of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in midtown.

Until that moment, the dozens of names that had been read aloud for the Homeless Memorial Interfaith Service, held last week to remember people who have died [in 2015] without permanent housing in Sacramento County, were of grizzled men and women. People who were in their 40s. 50s and 60s when they passed away. People who had mental illness problems and addiction problems, and had bounced from shelters to the streets and back again for years. 
But 5 months old?

Of course, we are all pained by the death of a child – evermore so one so very, very young.

But I am troubled by writer Erika D. Smith’s implication that the dozens of adult homeless people who had died were, somehow, a population of people whose deaths were more appropriate than the death of the five-month old.. And, I’m troubled by how these adults are depicted.

First off, I am troubled by use of the word “grizzled.” According to dictionary.com, “grizzled” means having hair that is gray or partially gray. But we all know that upstanding citizens are never referred to as “grizzled.” We won’t see the president described in the Bee as being “grizzled,” though his hair has gone gray. The word is a “bum” code word. In the parlance of Americans, “grizzled” typically means someone who has a face that appears worn well beyond the person’s age. [Indeed, the nonauthoritative Urban Dictionary defines "grizzled" as "Worse than grundy. The result of being exposed to something terrible for a long period of time and having the results show through your appearance and state of mind."

It is true that a lot of homeless people look “weathered.” This is so because they are outside much more than average citizens and don’t have the money to protect their skin. But I would aver that few or none of Sacramento’s homeless citizens should be called “grizzled”; it’s an assault; it’s a code word.

I don’t doubt that there are some old men in Homeless World who would rather proudly say of themselves that they are “grizzled old men,” but the meaning here is just that they’re experienced – they’ve been around the block more than a few times -- and their worn face is a testament to that fact.

Writer Smith also says about the deceased adults [that they are] “People who had mental problems and addiction problems, and had bounced from shelter to the streets and back again for years.”

Oh yeah!? All of that are attributes of all of the dozens of deceased homeless adults? Hardly! More likely, there are people among those homeless folk who died in 2015 who were smart and known for their compassion and had great senses of humor and deeply loved their dog and played chess and endeavored to work when they could and devoted their life to God and rooted for the River Cats and often listened to “Salt Shaker” by the Ying Yang Twins and smoked Marlboros and know a lot about opera and read spy novels and loved their grandchildren.

I would aver that the homeless adults who died in 2015 were REAL PEOPLE. They were not stereotypes out of Central Casting for some despicable movie about homeless people, directed by Adam Sandler.

A post for this blog that I wrote last August, “The Science of Hating Homeless People,” discusses the “dehumanization” of homeless people. A good many regular citizens come to be near-literally blind to the fact that homeless people are very much like them: We all think, and love, and trust, and die eventually and have lives that are very much – very, very, very, very much -- like those of quite average people. Homeless folk are not a bunch of weirdos; they do not merit scorn. Yes, they live in shelters and sometimes on the streets, like I did during my homeless years. Yes, many abuse alcohol and others are alcoholics. Some suffer from mental illness. Sure. And there are addicts to heroin or cocaine or meth or cigarettes or gambling. These are people many of whom have fallen a great distance. There are college graduates and people who have been a worthy boss of others. Too, within the homeless community there are pedophiles; there are psychopaths; there are narcissists. But like all humans, homeless people have good days, bad days; times when depression gets the best of them.

In the rest of her piece, Smith writes about the five-month old boy, Sivam Lekh, who died and his mom. This information is valuable. It’s a sad tale. It informs the public about the troubles that beset the infant and his mother. The infant had a hard, short life. The mother, Desiree Salazar, age 34, appears to be destined to have in her future more of much the same kind of trouble she’s had in her past. We can only hope that Desiree Salazar acts wisely and overcomes her troubles to find much happiness during what we hope will be a long life for her that is healthy, productive and fulfilling.

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