Last month, my sister’s car was broken into at a restaurant parking lot in Milwaukee. The window of her car was smashed, and several thousands of dollars worth of her possessions were stolen, including her MacBook, backpack with school textbooks and Kate Spade duffel bag holding clothes and toiletries.
She was understandably distraught, and my parents were left to help her pick up the pieces in the aftermath. She needed to have the car’s window replaced, go to the DMV to get a new ID, file insurance claims, and order a new computer and textbooks.
I understand the sadness that she felt when she realized her things had been stolen, and the stress that my parents felt in filing reports and fielding calls from the investigating police officers. These reactions were to be expected and were completely justifiable. What I don’t understand are the disdainful—and frankly hateful—attitudes about the perpetrator that I witnessed from some of these same people.
A few days ago, the police got a hit on the fingerprints left at the scene, and identified the culprit as a black 51-year-old homeless man. The investigating officer said that he knew the man, an alcoholic who has been in and out of shelters and treatment centers. Unfortunately, this man was unwilling to follow the rules of these establishments, so he was unable to stay.
I was appalled at some of my family members’ reactions when this news was shared with them. Many of them seemed glad that the man had been arrested, and made insulting jokes at his expense. They called him stupid, and continually repeated how he got what he deserved.
I couldn’t understand why they were all feeling sorry for themselves, berating this man as if he committed a far worse crime than theft. No one was hurt in the incident, and my family is fortunate enough to have insurance coverage and the means to replace the stolen items. After all, it’s just stuff. I became increasingly angry at their reactions, because my comprehension of the situation was quite different.
I thought about the fact that he is a 51-year-old homeless man with a history of alcohol addiction and most likely mental illness. He has little to no resources, and is probably so deeply affected by mental illness that he is unable to understand what is best for him and has few outlets to seek help. I don’t condone his criminal behavior, but I see his theft as less of a malevolent act, and more as a side effect of his unfortunate circumstances.
My family is very fortunate to have everything we need— and even want—in the way of food, clothing, shelter and other resources. This man has virtually nothing, and theft was one of a limited number of options that he felt he had to survive. There are certainly insufficient resources for the homeless community, particularly for homeless men of color, and I felt that we should pity him rather than condemn him as we try to put his situation into perspective.
I should make it clear that I am assuming this man has a mental illness, which is not confirmed, but is likely given his circumstances. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one-fifth of homeless people suffer from a severe mental illness. Many of these conditions are left untreated, and as such, are debilitating to the sufferer.
I’m far from an expert on the many causes and complicated politics of homelessness, but the individuals I was in conversation with were absolutely missing the larger picture. In the city of Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in America, it is clear to me that this was so much more than a man breaking into a car. This incident and its consequences are inseparable from the narratives of racism, poverty, mental illness, addiction and homelessness that surround it and contributed to its occurrence.
One response to my comment was that, “his choices shouldn’t be your emotional and financial burden.” I vehemently disagree, and absolutely believe that they should be my burden. I am reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., which appeared on posters around campus promoting the Week of Resistance: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That quote has stuck with me.
We are all citizens of one community, and the prejudices and obstacles faced by some affect us all. Therefore, the man’s homelessness is, in at least some ways, my responsibility. We must work to improve the lives of everyone in our community, especially those that are most disadvantaged, and especially if we are some of the most advantaged.
Furthermore, we have a responsibility as members of one human race to work to understand and care for others. This is basic human empathy. Whether or not I can fully understand the actions or motives of this man, I have to try. We all have to try.