The only time people can swear in court without the judge getting mad is in treatment court when people say they got a case of the fuck its. The fuck its usually explain a relapse on drugs or alcohol. I am a firm believer that most of the bad choices in life are preceded with a conscious or unconscious “fuck it.”
A few months ago I needed to see a different acupuncturist while Jodie was out of town. Lucky for me, she was a “specialist” in using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help women get pregnant. I happened to start seeing her when my attitude was at a low point. I sent her an email the night before on of my appointments. I said the f-word. Not at her, just like “I wanna say fuck it!” She responded by asking if I wanted to cancel my appointment. I think I wanted attention. And some consoling. I think I could have handled this better.
Just the day before, a client of mine got a serious case of the fuck-its. I gave him a case update that included the fact the DA was still seeking jail time. “Why am I doing all of this then? Why did I get a good job? Why did I get into treatment? Why am I going to those meetings? Why did I get back in my daughter’s life? It’s all going to be taken away from me if I go to jail.” “Because they are the right thing to do,” I told him. “Because it matters.” Sometimes these conversations don’t go this well. Frequently I am the bearer of bad news and clients take out their anger and frustration on me. I am the reason they are going to jail. I don’t understand, I could never understand. I’m not doing my job. I don’t care. It’s the worst. It makes me want to scream at them “That’s not true!” along with the laundry list of things I’ve done for them or the evidence that I really really DO care. I think I’ve even done that a couple times. It didn’t help.
It comes with the territory. I am the only person who will speak for them. I am the only person on their side who has the ability to do anything to make this situation less bad. I am the one person in this process filled with stress, confusion, and unfairness that they get to talk to. Sometimes they want answers. Most of the time they want to be heard. Many don’t have the words or the emotional intelligence to communicate fear, so they communicate anger. I get that. I’ve done that!
That new acupuncturist promised she gets great results. People are “very satisfied” when they work with her. She made us keep a food log. Praised our efforts in all the things we’ve been doing to try to conceive. Reassured us. But things felt like they went backwards. And I blamed her. “Why should I listen to her?” I asked Noel. I actively didn’t meditate just because she told me I should.
It’s self preservation. You just start preparing for the worst when you feel pretty done with hoping for the best.
Around this same time I read the book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It looks at the role eviction plays in the cycle of poverty and happens to be set in Milwaukee. It completely changed the way I understand the bigger picture that many of my clients are facing on a daily basis. It describes the squalor many people live in: some because of greedy landlords who know they are in a power position, and some of their own making. This is something I’ve never understood. Even if you’re poor, why not treat what you do have with respect? Why are the poor neighborhoods so full of trash? Why not keep their apartments tidy even if they are in disrepair? Why not dress as well as you can for court, even if it’s modest?
“Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because things like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself. It was once said that the poor are ‘constantly exposed to evidence of their own irrelevance. Especially for poor African America families – who lived in neighborhoods with rates of violence and concentrated poverty so extreme that even the worst white neighborhoods bear little resemblance – living in degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods sent a clear message about where the wider society thought they belonged.” ~ Evicted, Matthew Desmond
Even before reading this book I was aware that generational poverty in America is often traced back to the lack of affordable housing. For many, a meager house is all they have to pass along to their kin at death. Where many of white families got government assistance or GI loans after World War II, systematic racism meant that most veterans of color were not given the same opportunity. Middle class white families were encouraged to take advantage of new, suburban housing, but government policies meant that people of color were literally forced into certain areas of the city where they rented rather than owned property.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying being frustrated with some new acupuncturist compares to poverty and jail. First world problems right? My point is about ease with which even someone who is dealing with first world problems can get to the fuck-its. To think about the opportunities and privilege I have and still get to the point that I’m ready to self sabotage, that’s a reality check. The common thread is hopelessness. Hopelessness is a product of feeling helpless, my situation is not my choice. The reaction to this helplessness is to act out and blame or to turn inward and self destruct. In either case, it’s bad and leads people to make reckless and harmful choices.
Late this summer a friend asked me to attend an event for an organization that she is on the board of. I said yes without knowing a thing about the event or the organization. I arrived at at address near Marquette University in an area of town that I typically have no reason to be. There was a huge coach bus outside. Women started to arrive, most of them white and all of them looking very professional. As we boarded the bus we were handed a neat little folder with fliers and brochures strategically placed inside. The bus was full of women in Tory Burch flats and designer handbags. A video started to play to tell us about ACTS Housing.
ACTS Housing helps people determine whether they are financially ready to purchase their first house. If not, they help folks create a long term plan for saving, debt reduction, or credit building. Once people are financially ready (for many that takes years!), the organization works with licensed real estate agents to show people primarily foreclosed homes in the central city. ACTS then works with families to identify a budget for rehabing these homes. For families who cannot obtain financing through a bank, ACTS can help. Families often contribute a lot of sweat equity and are entirely responsible for finding and hiring any needed contractors. The result, a home of your own. ACTS stats show that most families remain in this home well past the required years. In fact, many ACTS families seek homes on blocks where other ACTS families already reside, transforming formerly vacant and boarded up streets into a strong network of cared-for houses and supportive neighbors.
This. This was real change in our city. Since 1995 ACTS Housing has helped over 2,400 families find homes. This bus tour was to see a before and after. We went to a home in an area of town that I definitely had never been. This luxury bus pulls up in front of a home that the city is trying to sell for around $30,000. These women, who I learned were financial planners, lawyers (at big firms), accountants, business owners…are offered masks as we file off the air conditioned bus and tentatively walk into a house that is filthy and falling apart. Some rooms are badly damaged. Others are full of abandoned things. A little girl’s middle school photo is tacked onto a bedroom wall as if they left in such a hurry they forgot it. As we are walking through this house, a man off the street just walked in smoking a blunt to take a look around. It was…memorable to say the least.
We get back on the bus and start driving through the neighborhoods again. As we do, I see people getting home from work in scrubs or UPS uniforms. An older man with a broom and a shovel sweeping the sidewalk. A tiny fenced in yard just full of colorful blooming flowers. These neighborhoods with street names I only associate with the shootings on local news, they seem to be filled with people. People who cared. People who were doing the best they could.
We stopped in front of a house where a woman and some children in their teens and early 20’s was waiting on the porch. She was beaming. Out of the bus and into the home she proudly showed us. “These cabinets are all new.” “All the wiring in that bathroom was redone.” “This woodwork is original and we restored it.” The home was modest, but well lived in and obviously loved. She made it a point to thank each one of us as we walked out into the yard and gathered for a farewell. “What do you like most about your house?” The woman got tears in her eyes. “I’m so proud that my children have a place they aren’t embarrassed to bring their friends and that some day when I’m dead and gone I’ll be able to leave them something.” We were all wiping away tears as we got back on the bus.
What most impressed me most about ACTS Housing, was learning that over 90% of these families remain current on their mortgage. Not only does that show that the process works, but shows the pride that homeownership creates. To be seen. To be valued. To create the possibility that poverty in this family will end. To give hope where decent, hardworking people thought there was none. That is the power to create real change. I see the spectrum of the fuck its on a daily basis. From the societal to the self-imposed, the problems people face create so much destruction. I am so proud that Milwaukee has an organization that is building up people and building up our community. That is why on this #GivingTuesday, I ask that if you haven’t read Evicted you pick up a copy immediately and that you join me in making a donation to support ACTS Housing. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it matters.