Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Edwards and Poverty

4000 N. Roman
Habitat for Humanity's Musician's Village
January 30th, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

That cold day two Decembers ago, Orelia Tyler thought she'd be getting a few college kids to move some dirt. The kids showed. So did John Edwards, announcing that he'd be running for the Presidency again outside her home.

Tyler came to Edwards' "I'm getting out of the race" announcement the other day in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, a place, he said, is a symbol of the poverty he's fighting to eradicate.

He also said, "We'll never forget you."

When he said it, I wondered if he's the type of big-time politician who has perfected the handshake and forget, handshake and forget routine. When I met Miss Orelia (That's how people address their female elders here in Louisiana), I wanted to know: Has Mr. Edwards stayed in touch?

Miss Orelia is the perfect person to ask, Edwards used her front yard to announce his candidacy. Her destruction was his foundation. "Every time he was in New Orleans, someone from his staff would call me," she said. She saw him at least four times throughout 2007.

A year into the campaign, Edwards' staffers told him that Miss Orelia's mom died. Burdia Jordan was 72. It happened two days before Christmas. Miss Orelia said Edwards called, offering his condolences.

When he'd finished his run and stepped of a make-shift platform, he gave Miss Orelia a hug. The journey had come full-circle.

Edwards had said it was time for him to move over for the other two democratic candidates to make history. He never had the It factor so many are seeking for the future President. But he said he vowed to keep up his fight against poverty in America and that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton agreed to make it part of their campaigns.

There is a new normal here. New Orleans, at least for awhile, will be the American symbol of social ills that exist within all urban environments. The country's dirty secrets are on display. It's the most honest City in America.

Edwards stopped by a homeless camp by my apartment complex. Some of the people that stay there, I'd call them regular acquaintances. They tell me different "Why" stories all the time. One day, it's the depression, the next it's the drugs, the next it's "I've been clean for months."

Edwards says 200,000 veterans sleep under bridges and on grates each night in America and that we Americans have lost the compassion necessary to care for our poor. A VISTA I work with once said that in all religions, there is a story emphasizing that the poor will always be with us.

I think this is the rub for Americans. Are we willing to care for the weak? In New Orleans, down the street from my home, I see it in their teeth. If I were 50, toothless, skinny and shriveled would I have the will to save myself?

I hope I never have to find out.

Do we have the will to care for them? The guys like Raymond Hall and a guy named Chris who comes into my office almost every day. Chris lost an arm when he was a kid. Hit by a car, he says. He zips his backpack with his teeth. He's a piece of what he once was, I'm sure, speaking in erratic and confusing sentences. Truth is, I've found myself wanting him to leave so I can go about my day.

And then he comes back again the next day or the next week. For the moment, I'm happy, because I know he isn't dead. Chris is the kind of guy that is so far gone that even the homeless camp wont take him. He's been shunned like a nerd in a room of jocks. The homeless make fun of him. Isn't that something, the human condition at all levels, it seems, searches for something to be better than. In this case, Chris is the ammunition for other down-and-outers to say, "At least I'm not him."

It takes a saint to care for the people who sleep under bridges, not a politician. An amount of compassion, which, I believe only a sliver of people have. The fight needs a few more foot soldiers and many more donors.

Then, maybe, our Chrises and Raymonds will have a roof and hot food.

That's what we all want right? Food. Shelter. Happiness.

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