Duty, risk-taking, helping others, and self-promotion

It’s a vague and general principle in the insurance business that some activities are more readily underwritten when there is outside, third-party supervision of the endeavors.

That gets to be testy when the aim is to help others.

I wrote my three books and developed my websites and blogs without supervision. The lack of peer supervision was actually an issue back in the Summer of 2001 when I was turned down for a renewal of a “media perils” individual policy that National Writers Union was selling as an intermediary.

Yes, I took some risks, and I probably knew what I was doing better than a lot of amateur writers, with regard to areas like copyright and defamation. I did become infatuated with the implications of my own narrative, which are considerable.  I did look forward to the fame, or at least notoriety. But was I helping anyone?

Well, the central topic of the first book was “gays in the military,” and in fact I knew a number of the servicemembers fighting the ban (and the old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy) well, at least by correspondence.  I would not have desired a romantic relationship with any or many of them, but I did feel legitimately connected in some personal way. I think I helped, although indirectly.  My staying in the debate for so many years in the search engines did help make the final repeal in 2010-2011 more likely.

But I also had made some unusual arguments.  They were based in part on accepting the idea of duty, of the necessity for shared sacrifice and resilience.  Specifically, I talked about the Vietnam era military draft and my own experience with it, and about the idea that it was still possible to reinstate it.  I recalled all too well the controversy over student deferments, implied cowardice, and the connection between risk and vulnerability.

I’ve thought about the “duty” concept in connection to the need for refugees and asylum seekers for assistance, sometimes very personalized.  One idea that comes through in discussions, especially with lawyers, that anyone offering hosting or major support should have some third-party supervision.  That usually would come from a social services agency, or possibly a faith-based group, as well sometimes local or state agencies.  Of course, the capacity of individuals to offer this has become muddled by Donald Trump and all his flailing and failing travel bans.  The desirable supervision is much better established in Canada (and some European countries) where sponsorship comes with some legally-driven responsibilities comparable, say, to foster care.  In the United States, given the political climate, the volume of people assisted is lower, and the risk or cost, whatever that is, gets spread out among more people.  The situation is even murkier for asylum seekers than for refugees, since their access to benefits and work permission is less, as has been explained here before.

I don’t yet know how this will turn out for me, but I agree that any adherence to “duty” would require some supervision.  So, I am fussier with this than I was with the risk management for my own writing.  But what about the people?  True, I don’t feel personally as connected to the people in this situation as I was with the military issue.  I have to admit that I have led a somewhat sheltered life.  For most of my adult life, the “system” has actually worked for me, and I have been associated with others who more or less play by the rules and benefit from doing so.  Since retiring, I’ve seen that the interpersonal aspects of need do bring on a certain culture shock. The system simply does not work for a lot of poorer people, who sometimes find that they have no reason to play by the same rules, but who do tie into social capital.  The system also fails “different” people, some not as well off as “Smallville‘s” teen Clark Kent. I can understand duty (accompanying “privilege”), but the meaning expected to be attached to helping others in a much more personal way is rather alien to me.

The whole question of housing refugees and asylum seekers (and I’ll even limit the scope of this remark to assuming “legal” presence in the U.S.) fits into a bigger idea about social resilience and radical hospitality, most of all for those (like me) with “accidentally” inherited property.  I do recall that after Hurricane Katrina there was a call for helping to house people in other states (sometimes in homes, sometimes with relatives).  Even though most people want to be near their homes to rebuild after disaster, this sort of need (a kind of “emergency bnb” lower-case) could come back again after earthquakes or major terror strikes or even a hostile attack (North Korea is starting to look really dangerous).  In the worst cases, the nation’s survival could depend on it.

(Published: Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at 10 AM EDT)

Guest post: Christmas at a homeless camp in the woods (by Rich Garon)

There were about fifty people in the woods, behind a strip mall that sits right across from one of the largest outlet malls on the east coast. There were clusters of tents and a shack or two. Looking carefully, I could see the winding paths that led me to another way of life. My first visit was a novelty. My grandson and I had arranged with one of the homeless men at the camp in the woods to bring the group produce from a nearby food pantry. I’ll call him Sam. He was tall and led us to his site, which seemed to be very well organized. We didn’t speak long and he thanked us for the meals our church had brought earlier in the week. The air-conditioning in our car revived us from the stifling heat that hung in the woods that early July day.

A group of us continued bringing produce from the farmer’s market, chickens from Costco, and some gas for the one or two generators that powered some small fans fighting the oppressive heat. We continued this routine for a while and spent time getting to know the men and several women who called these woods home. “I’ll be glad when the fall comes,” a guy named Billy said.

We were all new to helping the homeless, but it soon dawned on us that produce, chickens and gas weren’t really the answer. As we became familiar with the people in the woods, we learned about them and realized their lives were complicated; that divorces, job losses, arrests, addictions, or chronic health issues had led them into the woods. In some cases, events unfolded abruptly. In others, it took a string of setbacks before they claimed the spot on which they set-up their tents. We gave them money at times. It seemed they always needed little things; that is, until we had to shell out $200 to get Randy’s car out of the impoundment lot so he could travel a considerable distance to his job.

As we tried to help, we realized we really didn’t have a plan, so we decided to give money to groups we were told were more expert in helping the homeless. We still visited the homeless; many who by now had become our friends. We took them out to dinner occasionally, tried to interpret undecipherable forms and letters they received from county and state aid agencies and recognized each individual required more help and guidance than we could provide.

Remember how Billy was looking forward to the fall? Well, fall was short-lived that year and winter rolled-in with chilling winds and heavy snows. We brought shoeboxes full of toiletries and other notions. Billy even erected a beat-up Christmas tree. He situated it near a memorial of Christmas decorations dedicated to his twenty-five-year-old friend, Mantu, who froze to death one night outside his tent. Our friend, Sam, who had become increasingly ill, almost died one sub-freezing night when someone stole his propane heater. Such was Christmas that year in the homeless camp.

We were able to get Sam into transitional housing, but his medical condition was beyond what the home could accommodate. He was asked to leave. The snow had been replaced by the brutal heat of July, and his overall health declined rapidly. We tried to get him into a facility, but were told there was a two-year waiting list at most places. We spoke to another agency and they said they’d be pleased to help, but he’d need a fixed address. There was also little help available from non-profits.

We did eventually find a small studio apartment for Sam, and then one for Billy. We schooled ourselves in learning to navigate the bureaucratic tangle of regulations that tried to discourage us from finding out the types of assistance to which they were entitled.

You see, most homeless people don’t have cars to get to assistance offices, and they don’t have computers to complete forms online. They don’t understand the importance of seeking medical help for a problem before it worsens. Many individuals, church groups, and non-profits—while well-meaning—often support competing programs, and local governments provide inadequate funds to address the problem.

Sam and Billy have become family to us, and we’re going to continue taking care of them as family. Who would have thought that could have developed from our initial trip into the woods? There are plenty of other Sam’s and Billy’s who desperately need help, especially this winter. If you would like to help, check out non-profits and houses of worship in your area who work with the homeless. Any amount of time you have, can help those so in need.

Rich Garon is the author of Felling Big Trees (BookBaby, December 2016), a novel about a congressman turning from politics to make a positive change on a disillusioned society. All proceeds from the book will go toward WhyHunger, a non-profit that works tirelessly to end the scourge of hunger. He currently works with the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge, VA, where he coordinates the homeless ministry and particularly dedicates his focus to helping individuals who live in the woods. Learn more atwww.richgaron.com and www.whyhunger.org.

For more information, please visit www.richgaron.com, and connect with Garon through Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Felling Big Trees is available for pre-order on Amazon and for immediate purchase on BookBaby.

“WhyHunger is proud of our life-long friend Rich Garon on his newest endeavor as an author. Rich’s passion for fight”

Elizabeth Martins | Book Publicist

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(Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016 at 5:45 PM EST)