A Little "Trash" Talk

The following was published as a “Speak-Out” in the Brookings Register (Brookings, South Dakota) on August 31, 2012.

I’m writing in reference to “Transients Living under I-29 Bridge Prompt Concerns,” a front-page article in the Register’s July 28/29 issue. Its subheadline: “Sheriff, attorney asked to look into what can be done.”

Like the bulk of the article itself, its titling suggests that the nature of our community’s concerns about such “transients” should be legal. And the goal of addressing our legal “concerns” (or “complaints”) should be “to see what can be done to make [the transients] move along.” Sheriff Marty Stanwick states that objective more bluntly: “to run them out of there.”

The only reason the article offers for these “transients” needing to be “run out” is their lack of neatness—too much “debris,” too much “littering,” too much “trash assumed to be from [them]” (italics added). If you’re squatting on the margins of our community, this is apparently all it takes to deserve complete expulsion: An accusation. Of messiness.

To be fair, Brookings County Commissioner Alan Gregg does cite “safety concerns” in the article, recalling how a “transient” was recently killed on I-29 by a drunk driver. But this point of Gregg’s seems little more than an afterthought, at least as presented.

Let’s be honest, shall we? If this matter is truly about trash, let’s offer these “transients” a trash can. (I’d be happy to donate one.) Clearly, though, this isn’t about the littering of our landscape. It’s about the unwanted “human trash” making our community look bad. We want to move these “transients” on down the road, where they can befoul some other town. But alas, it seems that no law on the books—whether city, county or state—can serve us, and make that happen.

Really, my friends. As a community, can’t we do better than this?

I want to belong to a community whose newspaper reporters and public officials consistently refer to anyone living under a bridge as a “man” (or “woman”) instead of as a “transient.” In the July 28/29 article the men currently living under the bridge are never once described as anything but “transients.” This objectifies them, making them easier to demean, dismiss and drive out.

I want to belong to a community willing to acknowledge the fact that homeless and other socio-economically vulnerable people are always living in our midst. They are part of who and what we are. Therefore, I also want to belong to a community that is willing to say—and mean—that we have an ethical responsibility to attend to the well-being of such people instead of ignoring them, disparaging them, or trying to “run them out” of town under whatever rule can be found (or made) to apply. Such a sense of responsibility will have, for many of us, a deep spiritual basis, grounded in the conviction that all persons are our neighbors and thereby entitled to basic human decency, even compassion, rather than some sort of bullying.

If our community is concerned about the men living under the I-29 bridge, let’s begin by talking with them instead of about them, and in good faith. At a minimum, we could express our wish for their well-being, inquire about their needs, then see what (if anything) develops from there. This is a community matter. Let’s resolve it ourselves, humanely, instead of making it into a legal issue for the state legislature to tackle, as some of our leaders plan to do.

Additionally: let’s encourage our public servants to become more respectful of, and responsive to, the hardships of our more socially vulnerable members. Let’s explore how our community might do more to assist those among us for whom obtaining and/or maintaining stable housing is a huge problem. Finally, let’s ask whether the rate of incidence of unstable housing and homelessness in the Brookings area possibly points to the need for a homeless shelter in our town.

The presence of homeless men under the I-29 bridge is not a legal matter. It is a social one. I believe that we are equipped as a community to address it with more wisdom and compassion than the July article suggests, don’t you?

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