Seeing Oneself in New Orleans' Poor

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Of the many issues Hurricane Katrina raised, perhaps the most complex is that of poverty. Over the next few days, we will hear commentaries about aspects of poverty highlighted by Hurricane Katrina. The first is from Cynthia Hendrickson, who says the struggles of the poor in New Orleans felt all too familiar to her.


Of the many issues that have been raised by Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed, perhaps the most layered is the issue of poverty. Over the next several days, we'll hear several commentaries about aspects of poverty raised by Hurricane Katrina. The first is from Cynthia Hendrickson. She says the struggles of the poor in New Orleans felt all too familiar.


That was a strong wind blew across the Gulf Coast. Thousands of Americans opened their eyes and stared into the crevice that's always at their feet. I lived in that hole once. I was a poor single mother on welfare. I know the desperation of looking for a job with an eviction notice in my bag. I stole toilet paper from public restrooms; not because I'm a thief by nature, but because food stamps don't buy toilet paper. I lived in roachy apartments on risky streets, rode the bus to mindless jobs and I worried about my kids in their overcrowded classrooms with their metal detector portals.

Struggle is struggle. Poor is poor. Suffering is suffering. As my Navajo friend put it, `If you've been to the bottom, you are one of us.' I hauled myself out, went to school and got a good job. But we who are one of us, we know each other when we meet at conferences and in coffee shops. You who are one of us recognize the metaphor that Katrina made manifest. Every day, our people plead for rescue while the water rises beneath them, threatening to swallow them up whole. We who are one of us saw ourselves in those faces; not because of shared complexion, but because of shared experience.

If you haven't lived in poverty's hole, you aren't one of us. You don't know how hard it is to dig out. If you aren't one of us, you might be comforted by the belief that you're doing something right and we're doing something wrong. You might believe that's the difference between struggle and comfort, between daily safety and daily risk, between having and wanting, between being one of you and being one of us. If you haven't lived in poverty's hole, you might not know how slippery the walls are, how easy to slide down and how close you are to being one of us.

I wonder how many of you, you who aren't one of us, look down on New Orleans' rooftops and opened your eyes to the chasm at your own feet. I wonder how many folks in New Orleans who are one of us had just climbed out of poverty's hole only to be blown back in by the storm. How many more blown down that hole for the first time are just now learning to be one of us?

Those of you who are not one of us, wherever you are, did you hear Katrina whisper your name? Did you hear her ask, `How many paychecks do you have left? How much do you owe on your car?' Did your eyes open wide when you looked in the eye of the hurricane? Did you see us looking back? Were we close enough to touch? I wouldn't close my eyes again if I were you. A strong wind can blow you in.

BLOCK: Cynthia Hendrickson lives in Tiffin, Ohio.

Tomorrow, some solutions for helping people in poverty.

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