Recently, we received a letter to the editor in which the author claimed that most people who are homeless in Durango are from “somewhere else” and should go back there. We heard the echo of the invective often wielded against Black Americans: “Go back to Africa.”
But his letter does beg the question: Are the people in Durango who are without shelter from here or somewhere else?
We called Neighbors in Need, the volunteer organization that works with unsheltered people in Durango, with our question. One of their volunteers, Jim Micikas, went out to survey the people camping at Purple Cliffs. (Micikas delivers propane tanks for heaters weekly to Purple Cliffs, in addition to other doing other generous volunteer tasks.)
Micikas spoke to 51 people, some of whom reported their own hometowns and the hometowns of friends who weren’t in their tents at the time. Here is what he found:
‰ Twenty-nine percent were born or raised in Durango.
‰ Nine percent had lived here 16 or more years.
‰ Nine percent had lived here 11 to 15 years.
‰ Four percent had lived here 6 to 10 years.
‰ Thirty-one percent had lived here 2 to 5 years.
‰ Nine percent had lived here up to 1 year.
To summarize, 51% had lived in Durango for six or more years. These are not just our “neighbors” – they’re us. They’re Durangoans.
While that’s interesting and perhaps surprising to some, whether they are from Durango or not isn’t actually relevant.
The suggestion that people who are homeless don’t belong and should go somewhere else is familiar. It boils down to dehumanization. Thus, a man recently felt it perfectly acceptable to brutally assault a 65-year-old Filipino-American woman on the streets of New York and yell at her, “You don’t belong here” – while bystanders took no action.
Sadly, this is what humans do. In order to protect our tribe, our stuff, our sense of belonging, we reject and often brutalize others. Just as our forefathers enslaved Black Africans, excusing their conduct by judging Blacks to be less than human. Just as our forefathers oppressed and tried to eradicate Native American people, calling them “savages.” Just as some still call Asian-Americans vile names like “gook” and “chink” and blame them for COVID-19.
It seems it’s easier for many humans to connect with animals – to see dogs, cats, birds and whales as deserving of love, being intelligent, worth saving in the face of climate change – than it is to see people who don’t look like us, don’t act like us, don’t eat the same food, wear the same clothes, speak the same language – as valued and deserving members of our community.
Perhaps our world has changed too fast in the last few hundred years for humans to adapt. Instead of moving forward in our intellectual and emotional intelligence, some of us have moved backward, into the forests of early human tribes, where anyone outside our own gene pool was considered a threat.
If the nativist letter-writer had argued that the city and county are spending too much money helping unsheltered people, we might disagree, yet likely would have published his letter. But telling people to go back where they came from is hate speech that could even incite the kind of violence committed against the New York woman – or worse.
Let’s stop “otherizing” people who don’t have homes. Don’t let friends do it, either. Remind them that the unsheltered people of Durango have a right to be here, just as we do, no matter where they are from.
We’re all human and deserve to be treated as such.