The two great dreams of my adult life were to own a home and to write a book. So when I got my deal from Simon & Schuster to write Gimme Shelter
, I figured a miracle like that called for a mitzvah. I promised to give two percent of the money I make from my book to the National Alliance to End Homelessness
, and to work with the organization any way I can to raise money and awareness.
In the two years since I made that vow, the recession has deepened, foreclosures have hit an all time high, and the danger, for many Americans, of slipping into homelessness has become more imminent and scary.
My relationship with the NAEH had been, until yesterday, a virtual one. But Thursday, I paid far too much for an train ticket (I think the company's motto should be: "Amtrack. Because we've got you by the short ones.") and journeyed down to DC for the organization's annual awards.
I boarded the train at 10:30 in the morning. By 11:30, I was cranky, stiff, and standing in the café car to overpay for a bottle of water and smokehouse almonds. A woman ahead of me was ordering a vodka and Diet Pepsi. A gentleman ordered a Bud Light. "Budweiser, the King of Beers!" the bartender bellowed merrily in reply, handing him a can.
If there is any experience less regal than a Bud Light at 11:30 in the morning on Amtrack coach class, please let me never find out firsthand.
I disembarked at Union Station and walked to my hotel, enjoying the sights along the way, like the city's famous G-Spot Monument. Many people seen to have a hard time finding it, but I say it's worth the effort.
I was hoping it'd be a centimeter to the left, but...whatever.
And yet, it's the Washington Monument that gets all the attention. Typical.
I have been in DC a small handful of times in my life. Every visit, from a high school field trip to a recent, impulsive and exhilarating journey to the inauguration, has been marked by either Satan-level hot or Siberian gulag-level cold. This time, however, it's April — cherry blossom time! Shame about all the damn rain.
Blossoms, possibly cherry in nature.
My hotel, in Dupont Circle, is lovely, and my room is shockingly comfortable and large. I don't even mind that my view is of a dumpster.
Cut to me, having the best nap ever.
I awoke with a disoriented jolt much too soon after, scarfed some smoked almonds (note: chewing on nuts with a temporary filling in your mouth turns out to be a bad idea), and tossed on my favorite blue dress and red boots to head to the awards. It's my modified Wonder Woman look.
The Kennedy Center is located on the river, right next to the notorious Watergate Hotel. Riddle me this: for a nation that has ostensibly never had a communist regime, how do we explain our penchant for crappy architecture?
This makes the ghost of Brunellesci cry.
As I walked through the streets of our nation's capitol, I passed parks and squares with men and women sleeping in them. Many of those individuals are probably mentally ill and drug abusers, people with long term problems that require intensive solutions. Others no doubt have different stories.
All of them, surely, belonged somewhere and to someone at some time in their lives, all them are human beings, deserving of basic dignity and kindness. (For amazing, horrible, and sometimes with very entertaining insight into what it's like dealing family members, substance abuse, and homelessness, I highly recommend Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle.)
The NAEH awards this year honored three exceptional individuals: Maria Cuomo Cole of Help USA, Anthony Love of Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, Inc., and Sheila Crowley of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Each recipient gave an impassioned speech about the work they're doing in their communities, and the need for attention and advocacy right now.
Between 2005 and 2007, homelessness actually declined in America. But we are rapidly losing ground. The strides made are being lost, as foreclosure rates skyrocket, as unemployment rises. The word I heard repeated again and again was "vulnerable." How fragile we are. How vulnerable indeed. How easy it is to slip off the grid, to lose a job, to lose a home, to lose it all.
It was an extraordinary experience to spend an evening in the presence of people who are doing something about this. Who are helping our friends and neighbors obtain and hold onto homes. Sometimes in our darkest moments, we show our best selves.
I wrote Gimme Shelter about my quest to find a home. That drive has evolved into a desire for everyone to have the same — a bed, a roof, food on the table. Here in my nice hotel, with my clean sheets and warm bed and cable TV, I think of the people right outside sleeping on benches.
I think of the words of Sheila Crowley, calling for "moderation and reason" to guide us moving forward, reminding us that home is not just as an asset but a sanctuary.
I'm so grateful to the wonderful folks at Powells for giving me the opportunity to talk to you this week, and to you for reading. But this is just the beginning of the conversation, of action and compassion and of good things to come. I have the conviction that we can change the world when we decide we want to change the world. Toward the end of the awards program, before the wine and the cheese and the cute little cupcakes, Crowley spoke of the American dream of permanent and sustainable housing. And she said, "Tonight we celebrate, but tomorrow we get back to work. Because people are counting on us." I'm in. I hope you are too. Give us shelter.