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The Man in the Dog Park (review)

Marybeth Webster
On Loss (May 2023)
The Man in the Dog Park
by Cathy A. Small with Jason Kordosky and Ross Moore
reviewed by Marybeth Webster

One day in 1982, I realized I was homeless. I didn’t own a single key! No house, no car, no bank box. I had just flown to Los Angeles from Hawaii after selling my business. I tried to rent a car. I was refused for lack of an address! But I had a rather large bank balance, academic degrees, a good vocabulary, the confidence of the educated middle class, and a trustworthy smile. The car rental clerk let me use my Timex as collateral and gave me a car.

Within days, I had an address but no job. But six months later, I decided to be “homeless in spades.” I paid cash for an eighteen-foot mini-motor-home. I traveled the U.S. for a year, facilitating “Despair and Empowerment” workshops à la Joanna Macy. My savings paid for gas and food. I had auto and health insurance. I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never really been homeless.

Now I’m ninety-three, living in a retirement home in a rural town in southern Oregon where forest fires annually add to the census of the unhoused. Tents sprout in the parks. I accepted a challenge from Western Friend’s editor to review this book, The Man in the Dog Park: Coming Up Close to Homelessness.

This well-written book graphically demonstrates the many-pronged and increasingly desperate problem of inadequate access to housing in the U.S. Intimate interviews with people actually experiencing life with no place to call home touched me deeply.

Those most often on the receiving end of homeless “services” are America’s usual outcasts – people of color, women, old people, disabled people, veterans, teenagers, and LGBTQ; also, unemployed, underemployed, day laborers, and temps, who have no cushion to fall back on in case of illness or lay-off. A higher and higher portion of the middle class drops into poverty every year. Race and gender continue to intersect with the picture of who is poor, and a growing percentage of Americans are “severely rent burdened,” a term HUD uses for households paying fifty percent or more of their income in rent.

Complex bureaucratic paperwork, long distances to seek aid or work, lack of means of transportation – all bear emotional costs. Malnutrition and lack of sleep add to the burden. Constantly being treated with contempt and suspicion wears on one’s self-confidence and morale. Depression and addiction take a growing toll.

The authors’ thesis: “When it comes to homeless people, the American public is blind and delusional. It is our relationship to the homeless that renders them invisible and misunderstood. It is always this half of the dyad that is forgotten: the perceiver, not the perceived.” Some blame the victims; some blame the folly of government rules that act as disincentives. If one appreciates the ways that homeless people are caught in traps, how their status as “homeless” limits their potential for change, we may ask what we can do. If we see that homelessness is a product of an aberrant economic system, then the changes we seek must be profound.

The book’s end notes include many helpful resources, including the website of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.  Other resources include overviews of demographics, relevant publications, and tool kits on homeless issues and advocacy. They all emphasize that a community-wide approach works better than projects for individuals. The overall goals are rapid re-housing, supportive aide for the vulnerable, crisis response, and increased employment and income.

I wish I were more optimistic. I had hoped this book would give me some succinct answers, which it did not. Even so, I am stirred to recommend that every Quaker meeting library include The Man in the Dog Park and use it as a discussion guide for threshing by the meeting. All of us together are smarter than any one of us.  ~~~

Marybeth Webster is a member South Mountain Friends Meeting in Ashland, Oregon (NPYM).


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