When I heard that a homeless person died in Smith Plaza, right next to Borough Hall, I got a pain in my stomach. I had stayed in the homeless shelter in town for a few months this year and at first, I needed to know who it was. It turned out that I did not know the Cynthia Atkinson, aka Cindy, who tragically died in that park next to the prominent fountain. Once I learned about what had happened, my thoughts turned from sadness and sympathy for her family to anger and disgust at the way she died and how she was discovered. It speaks to the problems with our society and frankly, I'm quite a bit disappointed with this town.
According to a friend of mine who knew Cindy very intimately, she was a very troubled individual. Through medical and mental issues, she suffered a pain that I wish nobody had to endure. She had been in the shelter run by Still Waters church pastor Kork Moyer for a few years before I showed up this year. Many of the regular residents and staff knew her very well. This past shelter season, she refused shelter, so she ended up staying on the streets. She went to the ER a few times for various medical conditions, but I assume she didn't have insurance and got the lower level of care most hospitals unfortunately give uninsured patients. She laid down on a very hot day next to the fountain in Smith Plaza, never to wake up. At 49 years old, she wastes away in the hot summer sun.
Do people seem to care? Doesn't seem like it. I got into an argument on FB with a Pottstown police officer who doesn't seem to think it was their responsibility to check on her. He made it out to be like I thought it was their job to make sure that every individual Pottstownian was safe and alive. It is not their job to do that, but on a Code Red day such as Thursday, if I know my policies correctly, that becomes the responsibility of the cops. They are supposed to make sure the homeless get out of the heat and into air conditioning, where ever AC is possible. If the individual refuses, at least a few bottles of water should be given out.
The same cop then said that if it's their responsibility because they are right next to the park, it should be the responsibility of the bank across the street, the restaurant on the other side and the courthouse behind. I totally agree with that. No matter if we like it or not, Pottstown has become the dumping ground of Montgomery County. All the downtrodden, mentally disabled, poor and homeless tend to end up here. As a resident of Pottstown, we are given the responsibility to keep an eye out for the worst off of these people. They are human beings and should be given the same respect as someone with millions of dollars. When I was homeless, I got the stares. I got the whispers. Whenever I walked into a place with my cart filled with my life, I automatically got a different response from store owners, patrons and passers by. It was a totally different experience the few times I got to park my cart somewhere and experience life without that prejudice. That's part of the life of a homeless person. There are other issues, but we basically get the shortest straw of the bunch.
Why do I mention how the homeless are treated? Cindy spent 8-12 hours laying there, dead, before anyone decided to walk over and see if she was alive. On such a hot day as Thursday, you'd think someone would think about going over and at least offering her a bottle of water. Nope...nothing. Just another homeless person thrown away by society, right? But she wasn't just another homeless person. She was Cindy and was a very troubled person who needed a helping hand, if only a bottle of water, a meal and smile.
So, what do we do to make sure we don't lose people like this? Well, I, at least, look to the shelter and the staff and volunteers that run it during the winter months. As a volunteer that is helping to put together the shelter for next season, I think our responsibility should not end when the shelter closes in the spring. While the plan for this next season is for the shelter not to close but to end up in a permanent shelter as the last move of the year, I think something needs to be done for the people who either don't want to go into the shelter or for the people who are without shelter due to the end of shelter season this summer. I remember a presentation at the last TCN Rethinking Homelessness meeting by Bill O'Brien, head of Project Home, a homeless sheltering and social services program in Philadelphia. He talked about mobile stations the organization sets up in certain spots, such as the SEPTA underground concourse in which I stayed for one night, that give people a hot drink or cold water, a snack and can help them connect to social services. While this model might not be completely attainable here in Pottstown, I think we need to think about at least sending people out to the places where the homeless congregate with bottles of cold water, snacks and a smile, making sure people are still alive and are safe. If they need something, instead of telling them to come to the intake center, we can bring a few things like toiletries and clothing out to them.
Some people will ask me why it's necessary to care about these people and spend the money to make sure they're alive and well. The only answer is that they're human beings. Every person deserves the same amount of respect. I don't care if they are homeless and have hygiene issues, they still deserve a smile and some compassion. Some people think that just because these people don't contribute to society in a traditional manner, they should be thrown away and not cared for anymore. Budgets are being cut for shelters, leaving most of the burden to the churches who do most of the work anyways. The Salvation Army is one of the main providers of sheltering, but they do get funding from the county and state. That funding is being cut bit by bit to the point that it might not exist in the future. With a majority of the younger generations rejecting religion, most of the burden for these sheltering services are being shouldered by an ageing population that sometimes cannot afford to donate as much as they used to, meaning that many programs are being paired down or even eliminated. It's sad that the state doesn't see sheltering homeless people as being worth the money.
When I look at what society does to and doesn't do for the homeless in this country, I see just how Cindy Atkinson laid there, dead, for 8-12 hours before anyone decided to walk up and see if she was OK. People don't care about other people. People are only about themselves. If it doesn't affect them, it shouldn't matter. I could have just moved into my apartment and forgotten about where I was for the past year. I could start to treat people who are still homeless like everyone else does and either ignore them or spit on them when I walk past. As Pastor Moyer said at the last shelter organization meeting last week, "Some people finally make it out of the shelter and take a sigh of relief and say, 'I'm glad that's over,'" ignoring everyone else who is still in the situation they survived. But, I guess I'm different than most. I used to live a pretty selfish life and it took my best friend almost breaking ties with me to get me to realize how selfish and wrong I was. I never want to be like that anymore. I never want to be consumed by this "ME ME ME" society. I give up some of my food stamps every week to put on a community dinner every Wednesday night. (7 PM at Chestnut and Washington sts. in the playground) I am one of the people working to put the shelter together for next season. Do I want anything in return but a smile and gratitude? Nope. I want to make sure that people get food in their bellies and shelter over their heads. I want to make sure that everyone is afforded the respect the deserve as a human being. That being said, I'm sickened that people walked by, cops and buses drove by and nobody noticed her laying there on a very hot day. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything. She might not have been saved, but at least she could have been discovered sooner. It's always too late in this country. Never early enough to actually save someone.