My Brother’s Keeper

Each finger ached. My hands were full with grocery bags: peppers, broccoli, squash, beans, soap, coffee, sausage, and all the other things that we need for a week. My eyes and mind were focused on my destination a few blocks away. He stepped into my path and asked me a question. He was tiny–not even reaching my shoulder–maybe five years old, or perhaps he was six and malnourished. His hair was matted and frosted with the thick layer of dust that only street kids have. His clothing was dirty, a black shirt and beige shorts that clearly had been cut from pants he had outgrown. It was hard to tell if his dusky complexion was due to dirt on his face or endless sun exposure. To be honest I didn’t understand his question. It takes my full attention to understand Portuguese; if you catch me off-guard odds are that you’ll need to repeat yourself. I could guess what he wanted, though. Most likely he either wanted a few centavos or he wanted to help me carry my groceries home in trade for payment. I mumbled my usual negative response, he shrugged and we both went on our ways.

In general, I have a general rule about street kids. You don’t give them money, as much as you might want to. My personal reasons? First of all, travel safety–it exposes the pocket in which you keep your money. Second, it’s likely that the money will not be going to that adorable kid but to a family member who will use it for who knows what. And in the case of large cities or tourist towns it also encourages an underground economy that lures kids out of school or other more sustainable employment. After all, those kids won’t be cute forever and if in giving them money you distract them from developing other skills what will they do when they are older? Crime, plain and simple.

All of that is good in theory. I’m used to being in a tourist town and being approached at tables and on the streets with hard stories of blind and disabled parents, children with strange illnesses, etc. There it’s easy to say no, for all the reasons listed above. Here in this small town, the actual practice is different. Here, well, you know that in this small town there isn’t much of a government support system. In fact, the government programs that do exist are notorious for not trickling down to the people who need it the most (for a great documentary about this evil dynamic, watch Manda Bala–a lot of the monies embezzled in the movie were supposed to come to this region). You know that there probably isn’t a job for that blind man. You see that kid on the street every day–where are his parents? On the news there is the story of the woman who left her abusive husband and now lives with her kids and her household possessions (complete with stove and furniture) under two large trees; she has nowhere to go. That man who asked for money to buy medication for his kids? Well, he might just need it. He’s a hard worker. Or maybe his alcoholism has finally gained on his work ethic and he needs it for another reason. You never know.

I worked for years as a social worker in a homeless shelter. In the United States I knew that if someone asked me for money for food that I could say no and there was a soup kitchen where they could eat. There was a shelter bed where they could sleep. Here there are no soup kitchens or shelters. There is help at the church, but it is limited and only for those who want to talk about Jesus.

One evening we had an uncle who spent the night drinking with my brother-in-law and then came to our house and crashed on one of our spare beds. We were in the middle of painting the house, so the only standing guest bed in a non-work area was one that didn’t have a mattress. We went to drag one into the room but he insisted that he was content to sleep on just the cardboard layer used as a Brazilian box-spring. In the morning we gave him a ride into town, where he visited at length with my mother-in-law–much longer than a normal social visit. The family quietly searched in the background for men’s clothing that they didn’t wear, and it was discretely handed to him in a plastic bag. Later he left, for points undefined. The whole interaction was strange until I realized that I was witnessing the rural Brazilian shelter system. In an elevated version of couch-surfing, this man moved throughout his extensive family network getting a place to sleep and food for a few nights before moving on to the next relative. My family explained that he was once a hard worker, but now drinks all the time and doesn’t want to stop. He has a small, humble house (read: shack), tucked away in the country where he stays sometimes and sometimes he stays with his immediate family in town. They tolerate him until an argument happens and mutual stubbornness sends him out into the family network once again.

Which is better? Tough-Love advocates would say that we’re supporting his addiction. But what if there was a shelter? Sleeping 18 inches from another person, on a mat on a floor, always having one eye open to make sure your belongings don’t get stolen, would that be more humane? This way he gets a bed and a meal most of the time. Would he stop drinking if he had to sleep outside all the time? This is Brazil, it’s not that cold most of the year. Sleeping outside didn’t stop lifetime drunks in the dead of Maine winters, so I suspect it’s not going to stop someone here. So much for Tough-Love. And that kid or the blind man? Yeup, they might be cheating me. I’m light-skinned and tall; I stick out in a crowd in more ways than one and so I make an easy target. I always assume that there’s a 50% chance of my being scammed. I get annoyed when I see myself getting asked before other town residents. But the fact is, my clothing is nicer and I do usually have a few centavos in my pocket. And that woman down the street with the endless brood of kids? Yeup, I could lecture her about family planning. But the fact is that the kids are here now, and my sanctimoniousness does not put food on their table or make sure that those kids stay in school. The fact that I’m not giving to any of them will not fix the government officials who are skimming the cream off the tax base.

What I realize is that having a shelter and a soup kitchen makes it easier for me to say, “It’s not my problem.” Not that I’m saying that they shouldn’t exist–they absolutely should–but isn’t it interesting how once you have one you can pretend that someone else will take care of society’s ills for you? Here it is in my face, and if I’m a member of this small community it IS my problem. I have the daily challenge of moving my way of thinking from “coulda/shoulda/woulda” to what is “help.” Focusing on outcomes first and then assistance and forgetting the rest (which some days requires a Buddha-dose of self-grounding, I won’t lie). I try to focus on one truth: whatever help I offer, odds are they will always need it much more than I do. No matter the reason why.


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