I spent most of yesterday morning with a formerly homeless man. He’s now in an apartment without a refrigerator or stove, or electricity or running water, but he has a roof over his head and a door that keeps his few possessions (relatively) safe.
We sat for a good hour in the Cooper Green pharmacy, waiting on his prescription to be filled. It was surprisingly crowded for a Monday morning. The pharmacy is a windowless room, about twenty feet square, with bad lighting, a blaring television, and four service lines. About twenty-five people sat on chairs or stood in the flickering fluorescence waiting for their number to be called. This is one of the places people who can’t afford much health care go to get their meds.
My friend was waiting on his insulin. He works at a car wash, but since it was raining he wasn’t working that day. He said that when it turns cold, the younger guys will stop showing up. He can endure the cold, he said, and he knew he would be working more come October and November.
As I looked around, I tried to guess the history of the other folks in the room. There were more than a few who were well-educated – I could tell from their dialect and their vocabulary. Most were clearly living in poverty. Everyone wore expressions that suggested they would rather be somewhere else.
I could tell that a few of them were in there because of bad lifestyle choices. They smelled of cigarette smoke and talked too loudly. I could see the signs of years of addiction on their weathered faces. But most were just tired.
After our pharmacy visit, I took my friend to a big box department store to get some work boots. Someone had offered him some weekend work clearing a fallen tree, but he had to provide his own steel-toed boots. Forty bucks. We also picked up some Ensure, because he said that he often had a hard time getting breakfast (having no refrigeration, in this day and age, is a problem if you want ready access to healthy food).
I took him to Jim & Nick’s for a diabetic-friendly lunch. Then we went to Family Dollar, because he needed some personal hygiene items. He bought a duffle bag to cary his supplies to and from the showers at the Salvation Army, just a few blocks from his apartment.
We spent most of the morning running errands, and we spent about $120 during our four hours together. And it occurred to me again, as it has so often in the past that it is expensive to be poor. The most valuable thing I provided for this gentleman besides the money was transportation in my car. If he had instead taken the bus, what took us a morning would have taken him days. That’s time that he would not spend looking for a better job, or educating himself, or reading and just enjoying life.
I thought about all the people in the waiting room, almost all of whom are there because they cannot call in a prescription to CVS and drive down and pick it up. I thought about the tremendous wasted economic and personal value that their time represents. Decent public transportation would help all of them, and everyone else in Birmingham as a result. Affordable preventive health care would help not only them, but my insurance premiums, because I wouldn’t be paying for as many of their emergency room visits.
I was also impressed, as I have been in the past, with this gentleman’s financial savvy. I tried to give him space to make his choices about the products he was going to buy, and I tried not to stand hovering over his shoulder so he could have some dignity and privacy. But I couldn’t help notice the way he was doing comparison shopping, squeezing every bit of value out of the budget we had agreed on in the past.
When we meet, I usually ask this man, “What would be the most helpful thing we could do right now for your goals?” And we talk for a bit about what he wants to do, and what would help him do it. Sometimes I’ll make suggestions or ask questions, but I generally figure he knows best. I did ask him awhile back if he had a savings account, and he informed me with some pride yesterday that he has one now, and he intends on socking away $25 each time he gets paid. He’s on a waiting list for some subsidized housing that includes utilities and comes with a fridge and stove – items which will make it less expensive for him to conduct the daily business of living and working.
Each time I willingly step into a relationship with someone who is poorer than I am, I have my world view shifted a bit. I already know it’s expensive to be poor, but when I think about what this guy goes through to get his insulin so he can go to work, and how he’s working his butt off to claw his way out of poverty, I admire him. He admits he’s made some bad choices, but now he’s making good ones.
As I drove home reflecting on my experiences, I turned on the radio. Some talk show guest was referring to my president as “the Food Stamp President.”
I turned the damned thing off. The man just has no idea.