Our Invisible Society

One of the most amazing and unnerving observations I have made on my commutes to work in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, is how two societies converge with very little interaction. While one segment of society is heading to work, another is moving from their sleeping place to their next daily “hangout.” If you don’t pay close attention, you might not notice the difference between them, because they are both carrying backpacks or pulling small suitcases. However, once you take a closer look you will notice how one group is carrying or pulling their whole life with them.

I have worked in the downtown St. Paul area for nearly two years and have been learning about this often overlooked part of our society as I drive through town to and from work or take my lunch-time walk. During this two-year period, I have witnessed a growing homeless population and wonder how these people manage when so many programs are being cut.

I don’t know if I would have paid attention to this “invisible” society if I had not experienced nearly 800 days in Liberia, West Africa. It was quite clear from my first visit in 1998 that I could not avoid the extreme poverty in this nation devastated by nearly 15 years of war. This experience made me realize how easy it is for us to bypass and even ignore our impoverished areas in the U.S. After living in Liberia for two separate years from 2007 to 2010, I gained an appreciation for these people who are very much part of the greater society.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from people living in poverty is… “those who have the least have the most to give.” For example, I have observed more than one Liberian give their last “dollar” to someone they felt was more in need. Another example, was a medically trained Liberian who provided free malaria treatments for up to four people in his tiny one-room living space that he shared with his wife and daughter. Even I was recipient of this unexpected generosity when I was down on my luck during my second year of residency. I can attest that such an experience humbles you and makes you appreciate the wonderful gift of humanity regardless of their “perceived” value.

The harsh reality for many people living in poverty or homeless is that they are often ignored or degraded by those who are more fortunate. I will never forget when a Liberian in 2008 explained that “the poor take care of the poor.” This statement is even true with the homeless people in St. Paul, because I have seen younger people help an older person across the street or another carry their load. It is obvious that this community stays close together and take care of each other.

While homeless and poverty may seem like the norm for the 80% or more Liberian people classified in this condition, they cannot fathom that such a thing exists in the U.S. In fact, anytime that I have mentioned that the U.S. has homelessness and poverty, they look at me suspiciously and believe I am lying. These are people that look upon the U.S. as the land of prosperity and good fortune based on what they have heard from others or seen in pictures or movies.

Sometimes it hard to discern the differences between developed and developing nations when it comes to how they treat their “outcasts” in society. When looking at the homeless faces in the U.S. and Liberia, there is little to no difference. They are the products of war–U.S. Veterans and Liberian ex-child soldiers. They are the usual marginalized groups–women, children, disabled, elderly and ethnic minorities. They are people who are battling addictions or dealing with mental illnesses most likely from some traumatic event.

It is so easy for human beings to compartmentalize groups of people into boxes of “isms” without realizing it. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. However, we do have the capacity to open these boxes (and our hearts) and discover that it is not fair to stereotype people based on societal assumptions. The reality is, we have not walked in their shoes or can even relate to their circumstances. Yet, if we take moment and imagine ourselves in their situation, would we not want to be visible?