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Don’t Look Away


There’s a famous Mr. Rogers’ quote, that I’m sure everyone knows:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

Those words have always filled me with hope as I’ve watched the news and read about the earthquakes, hurricanes, oil spills, bombs, drone strikes, church-shootings, school shootings, and hate. Everywhere we look, in times of disaster, we can see the helpers. It’s uplifting and beautiful. But then, our passive gratification spent, we move on. We look away.

And oh, is it tempting here, at the start of a new year, to look away from the injustices that are happening right now. We say it’s for self-preservation. Current events are too stressful and too depressing.  We are too emotionally spent from the political assault of 2016 to focus on politics.

This desire to protect our emotional well-being, to focus on self-preservation, is human. But it is a luxury that few can afford. We can, and should, look back at the beautiful things that happened this past year, but we should also remember that our comfort is not shared. In this city, in this country and on this planet, mothers are left childless, children orphaned, schools bombed, and lakes relied on for sustenance poisoned – right now – while we look away.

Last week, a man died in my city. A homeless man. People walked by, not realizing that the bundled human being sleeping on the sidewalk was dying – or already dead. And tragically, he was not the first and will not be the last. Since January 1st, four people have died of exposure in this, my city of roses. David Guyot. Mark Eliot Johnson. Karen Lee Batts. And last night, a man who has a name, but it is not yet known.

My five-year-old daughter tells me, with all the wistful hope of youth, that when she grows up, she will make lots of money and make sure that everyone has food and everyone has a home, because “that’s just what’s right.”  I’ve patted her head and told her that I can’t wait to see all the things she will do when she grows up, all the while fighting the lurch in my stomach. Because she’s right.  How is it possible that in a moral society, in the self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth”, that on a single night in January of last year, 549,928 human beings were homeless?

It’s easy to pretend that homelessness is an unfixable problem, but it’s not. There are solutions that have data to support their efficacy. The solution for ending chronic homelessness, as outlined by both the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and The National Alliance to End Homelessness, is to provide permanent supportive housing. It is more cost-effective and is better for the community at-large.

But to find solutions to homelessness, to find a way to “fix” the countless things that are broken in our communities, our cities, our states, and our nation, we have to commit to examining the realities that have led us to this place. And we have to be willing to ask, every time we are confronted with an image that fills us with sadness: “What can I do to make this stop?”

Shunning the news or those pictures won’t make those horrors go away. It won’t make the farmers’ bodies whole, who were ruthlessly bombed in the U.S. backed Saudi-coalition’s war in Yemen.  A war which has targeted the country’s agricultural sector, and has left over half the country starving. Not looking won’t put food in the bellies of the starving Yemeni children. It won’t make our country stop supporting dictators, or supporting and providing training and weapons to jihadist movements, including ISIL and Al Qaeda.

To fix these things, we have to be willing to look that anguish in the face, we have to embrace the horrors that we thought would ravish our souls, and we have to find our way to accepting the simple truth – this is the way the world is.

So in this new year, I ask only this: Don’t look away. Look. Look hard. And when you’ve let yourself examine everything you thought you knew without anger, without fear, without despair, without prejudice, and – when you’ve found a way back to yourself – look some more. Then find a way to help. 

There are always helpers, as Mr. Rogers said, but in this age, we must cease to simply look for helpers. We must all be helpers.

Written by R. R. Wolfgang

Mother. Wife. Sister. Survivor. She grew up poor and went to the University of Cambridge to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic languages, literature, paleography, and history. Now, she's interested in social justice and seeing if history could kindly stop repeating itself.

R.R, is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.


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  1. Where are the helpers? When people try to help the homeless, they seem to be labeled “enablers”. There has to be a better solution than not turning away. Where are the concrete solutions to this problem? Where is the movement to help these people? It seems there are more organizations for and more outrage at mistreatment of animals. One town can give you a large fine for leaving your pet out in the cold weather. Who can we fine for letting human beings sleep outside in the same cold weather? Seriously, I am an old woman and I am frustrated at the lack of answers to the problem of homelessness. Writing about them doesn’t give them food and a warm bed. Action does.

    • I agree – writing won’t give us all the answers, but perhaps it will start the conversation that will prompt us to action. I read an article recently that said, “When did the war on poverty become a war on the poor?” That’s exactly what’s happened in the U.S. Rather than curing homelessness, many cities are implementing policies that simply make homelessness a crime – a rephrehensible and terrifying show of immorality. My mother suffered from mental illness and spent many nights on the street, not even recognizing me when I approached her. Through years of work, I finally managed to get her back in her home, to recognize me and let me into her lief, only to fight to get her healthcare, and lose her 9 months later to cancer.

      As someone who grew up poor, ate at soup kitchens, was victimized and abused, all of which happens with a frightening regularity to those who are marginalized, the fight to simply live is exhausting.

      But there are helpers. They are little lights in a sea of darkness, but they are there. In my city, it’s the Sisters of the Road, R2D2, and many other small organizations that are fighting for affordable housing, shelter, and for the homeless and poor to be seen as people. I’d highly recommend watching their short film “On the Ground”: http://sistersoftheroad.org/whats-happening/on-the-ground-short-film/. It highlights so many of the things that the homeless population have to deal with that many people who have never experienced it don’t truly grasp.

      Utah has actually implemented something that was outlined in the links I provided above: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459100751/utah-reduced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres-how. It’s working for Utah and it’s cut the states’ costs in jail and medical treatment significantly. So why aren’t more cities doing this? Because we aren’t demanding it.

      I meant my last two sentences: “There are always helpers, as Mr. Rogers said, but in this age, we must cease to simply look for helpers. We must all BE helpers.” It is our moral and our civic duty to ACT. Not just when we see injustices, but to each of us work to build the society that we want to live in. A society that cares for all people – sick, poor, injured, and well.

      And we need to build this society. We can’t build this on words or ideas. We have to build it together. We have to demand it of our city councils, of our state and federal legislators. We have to yell, we have to protest, and we have to demand that all people be treated with respect and dignity. I believe we can build this society, but *we* have to do the work to educate ourselves, to educate our friends and our communities, so we can cry out with one voice: ENOUGH!

      Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. I truly do appreciate it.

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SPLASH! Recap of January 10, 2017

Don’t Look Away