The day my joy ended

This was the day we learned that Mike would not survive. It was also the day a homeless man named Tommy McMahan died alone in a jail cell because he didn’t want to leave the hospital and die on the street. I grieve them both today.

This was the day I knew I’d never be joy-filled again, that every happiness I might manage to experience was to be marred with unfathomable loss.

This was the day 13 years ago that we learned the cancer was back and we knew there would be no cure.

This was the day we learned my son would die. And every year, I am forced to relive those last weeks of his life, and finally, his death.

I can still hear the echo of his voice. “Mom, the cancer’s back. If we’re lucky, I might have a year.”

We weren’t lucky. He would have just six weeks.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that, other than, “I’ll be there this afternoon.”

I was on my way into work and my husband was a few minutes behind me. I decided to go into the office and not say anything to anyone until he arrived, and then it would be OK if I fell apart.

All of this was because no doctor would see him because he didn’t have insurance. And he didn’t have insurance because a birth defect was a pre-existing condition. And doctors were allowed to turn him away, even though they knew to do so was a death sentence. And the only ones who suffered were Mike and all the people who loved him.

When my husband got to the office, I went to his desk and tried to tell him quietly, but I fell apart and sobbed uncontrollably.

How was I going to go on without my son?

That might have been the moment I decided my heart would stop when his did. Of course it would. There was no way I could outlive him.

“I have to go,” I said. “I’m heading out there now.”

My husband decided it would be better if both of us went, so he went in to the editor’s office to tell him. The editor never came out to face me. I remember how upset I was that this man I had worked with for several years couldn’t even bother to come out of his office to say he was sorry about my son.

I remember my colleagues hugging me and offering whatever words of condolence they could muster, and most of them only finding, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” Surprisingly, those words from people who cared about me were enough to help me pull myself together.

It’s a nearly four-hour drive from where I live to where Mike lived, just outside of Raleigh. I don’t remember a moment of that drive. I hadn’t seen him in several weeks and I was shocked to see how much weight he had lost and how close to death he looked.

This was really happening. My precious son was dying because no one had cared enough to help him before it was too late to save his life, because our system was — and is — so damn broken.

We spent a couple hours with him, his wife (they’d had to split up so he could get Medicaid and have any chance at all of surviving, but they never stopped loving each other) and his best friend, and then got a motel room.

I had wandered across the street to an electronics store because I couldn’t just sit in the room, and as I browsed, I saw a photo printer and thought to myself that Mike could help me set it up if I bought it.

Then I remembered that Mike would be gone soon, and I was overcome once again. I ran back to the motel room and fell apart again.

My phone rang a few minutes later and it was a colleague asking for numbers of people to call who could comment on the death of a homeless man named Tommy McMahan. I was the reporter covering social services issues, so I would have written Tommy’s obituary. I had the contacts for a story like this one.

Tommy had gone to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing, and it was frigid outside. They diagnosed him with pneumonia and discharged him with medication, but he begged not to be turned out into the sub-freezing night. So, someone called police so he could at least be in a warm jail cell.

That’s where he died in the early hours of the morning. Alone.

I knew my son would have people who loved him by his side when his time came. Tommy had died homeless and alone. It was unbearable to think about it.

This has stayed with me almost as vividly as the news that my son was dying. That we as a society can allow people to die from lack of access to even the most basic necessities is so deeply immoral that I have no words to express it. Even now, 13 years later, I cry over the loss of both of these precious human souls — and the hundreds of thousands — more accurately, millions, when you consider all the ways poverty causes premature deaths — of precious human souls who would follow because we love money more than life itself.

We still haven’t fixed any of this. And don’t tell me the Affordable Care Act fixed it. Insurance companies have subverted the law to their own advantage and more people were dying from lack of access to care before the pandemic hit than were dying in 2008 (45,000 a year then, 68,000 before the pandemic hit). The ACA helped some people. But the average deductible now — the amount people have to spend out-of-pocket before seeing any benefits — is more than $3,000 in a time when nearly half of Americans say they have to borrow money to pay a surprise bill of $400. The ACA did not fix this.

Every year on this day, I weep from the overwhelming grief of watching my son die from medical neglect, but also for Tommy, and for all the people who are still unhoused.

I fume as I see people praising someone for building coffin-sized boxes for fellow human beings to “live” in, but who then stand firmly against paying people a living wage in exchange for a week’s work. I live in a perpetual state of grief and outrage, and I can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t, too.

I think of today as Tommy McMahan Day, a day to remember this man I never met, but who touched my heart so deeply.

I continue the anti-poverty work in memory of my precious son and in memory of Tommy. May they, and the millions who have died prematurely from poverty in the 13 years since their hearts stopped, rest in peace.

‘What are you gonna do?’

Sherri White-Williamson, a specialist in energy regulation and law, who is retired from the EPA, now works to make all out energy safer and renewable, issued a challenge to everyone on the Poor People’s Campaign Truth and Poverty Bus Tour to go home and DO something.

In the three years my son battled cancer, he often played the Cancer Card.

What that meant was if he wanted something, or if he didn’t want to do something, he would whine, “But I have cancer!”  Then he would laugh, whether he got his way or not.

In the days before his death, he told me I was about to get a card that would be hard to top — the Dead Kid Card.

“I don’t want it,” I said. “I want nothing to do with it.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter what you want. It’s there. It’s being dealt as we speak. What I want to know is what are you gonna do with it.”

I told him I didn’t know and he shook his head again.

“Nope, I want to know. What are you gonna do?”

I thought for a moment and told him I will work for access to health care for everyone. Real access, not a high-deductible insurance policy that just puts money in the pockets of the 1 percent, but real, meaningful access.

He sank back into his pillow and smiled.

“Good. I approve. You have my blessing,” he said. “Go get ’em.”

Eleven years later, I’m still working on it.

Last week, I went with some of my fellow activists in the NC Poor People’s Campaign on the National Emergency Truth and Poverty Bus Tour across the state to visit people affected by poverty.

We saw people doing, including the first homeless/formerly homeless Street Medic Team, based here in Asheville. We met homeless activists in Charlotte, several of whom got on the bus and traveled with us.

We met environmental activists in Robeson, Scotland and Duplin counties. One of them was Sherri White-Williamson, who retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and now works across Eastern NC as an activist fighting the deforestation causing catastrophic flooding, the proliferation of industrialized hog and poultry farming and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other fossil fuel enterprises.

Sherri spoke to us in Robeson County and again in Duplin, and she told us to go home and do something.”

“You’re all excited now, enthusiastic about working to improve things,” she told us. “But coming here and learning what’s happening is not enough. You have to go home and do something.

“What are you gonna do?

In the 11 years since my son breathed his last, somewhere near a half million Americans have died from lack of access to care.

I worked for the Affordable Care Act, even though I was uncomfortable leaving insurance companies in the mix because I feared they would work to sabotage the law — which is exactly what has happened.

So, I continue to work to educate people about why we need to do what every other so-called developed country has done — find a way to get access to health care to everyone.

But I can’t work in a vacuum. Health care is not the only issue we need to address because if we get health care to everyone and we don’t fix the environmental devastation or raise the minimum wage, stop the endless wars or fix voter suppression, we’re still screwed.

We need activists for this fight. We need people to work with us.

We as a nation need you to pick your issue or issues and join the fight.

We don’t need online petitions because they never, ever, ever result in any change. Never. Sitting at your computer and typing in your name, e-mail address and phone number does nothing more than give some political hack your contact information so they can inundate you with requests for money.

Donating to a cause is great — the Poor People’s Campaign could sure use some financial help, as could any number of other causes — but these are perilous times and we need people to be in the streets.

We need people who can register voters and educate people on the issues — God knows the corporate media don’t peddle much beyond propaganda.

We need people to run for office — school board, city council, county commission, state legislature — and work for real change.

We can’t do this if people just stay home and go along to get along.

We need you in this fight because this is a fight for our very existence as a species.

What are you gonna do?

Think about it. We don’t have a whole lot of time left.

 

All I want for Christmas is social and economic justice

This is not a joyous day for too many of us.
Some of us are without loved ones, perhaps for the first time.
Some of us are without a job and therefore without the means to participate in the way convention tells us we must — there is joy in giving, so we must consume, consume, consume, spend, spend, spend.
I spent a part of yesterday — Christmas Eve — talking to people who don’t even have a home, nevermind a tree all lit up in splendor.
We live in a time of historic economic and social inequality. Those of us who have something are encouraged to belittle and discriminate against people who have less — even against people who have nothing at all.
I’m working on an article about how cash bail keeps people incarcerated because we in this culture assume poverty equals guilt, if not of the crime for which we throw you in jail, then of being “lazy,” of wanting a “handout.”
One woman said to me, “I don’t have any way of knowing the date or even the time. I live under a bridge.”
But she spent 23 days in jail for the crime of missing a court date for sleeping in public.
“I cried a lot,” she told me. “But what can I do?”
Another young man has been homeless ever since he was released from foster care seven years ago with no skills and no help.
“I had marijuana paraphernalia,” he told me.
No pot, just the paraphernalia.
And he landed in jail for weeks, without a conviction.
We’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country, but poor people are thrown in jail and left there because they can’t come up with a few hundred dollars to pay the bondsman.
That $100 you have to come up with for the $1,000 bond routinely set for people who trespass or fall asleep on a park bench in the sun, that $100 is food for a month. That $100 is a quarter of a disability check for someone with a mental illness who could be stabilized and more than happy to contribute to society if they just had a place to call home.
Instead, we follow them until they fall asleep, exhausted, on a park bench and arrest them for sleeping in public. That arrest then bans them from the city’s parks, and if they so much as sit on a park bench to rest, they can be arrested again for trespass.
Rev. Amy Cantrell, who operates BeLoved House in Asheville, NC, says she has seen police follow people they know are homeless and arrest them as soon as they sit down.
Amy works with people who society considers disposable and every year, a dozen or more die.
The year my son died from medical neglect, one of them was a man named Tommy McMahon. It was February and it was cold. We had just learned that morning that Mike’s cancer was back and we were in Cary with him. He was napping and my husband and I were in a motel near his house when I got a call from a colleague who asked for some sources for a news story about a homeless man who had died the night before.
Tommy had gone to the emergency room with difficulty breathing and was diagnosed with pneumonia. They gave him some antibiotics and released him to the streets. It was in the 20s that night and he was sick, so he balked at going back out. Someone called the police and Tommy was brought to jail, where he died that night, alone in his cell.
I think of Tommy every year at this time — when the days are shortest and the nights are longest and coldest, when I know people are out in the cold with nowhere to go to get warm.
I think of Tommy when I see a homeless person being harassed and told to leave a place of business because they don’t have enough money to be considered worthy of society’s respect.
I think of Tommy when I see a tent in the woods along the side of the road and I know the police might show up and slash it because it’s illegal to camp just about anywhere they might pitch a tent against the cold and rain.
I think of Tommy when I see someone huddled in a doorway and I know they’ll be told to move along so the sight of them doesn’t disturb customers.
I think of Tommy when I remember that, although my son died of medical neglect, at least he had a warm bed and people who loved him.
I think of Tommy when I remember that the person I follow was born in a stable because no one would give his parents a warm place to be on that night.
I like to think Tommy is in a warm and loving place now, that his soul is nurtured and fed, even though his body was not.
On Christmas, I think of the people who have nothing because it seems nobody else wants to.
Today, I’ll celebrate by serving lunch to people who have little to nothing. I’ll hug them and I’ll tell them I care — because I do.
My sister and my son aren’t with us anymore. Neither is Tommy McMahon. But there are more than enough people with whom to celebrate the birth of a poor child who would change the world, and I don’t need to buy — or get — a new Buick to do it.
All I need is the spirit of the one whose birth we celebrate, the one who told us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick and welcome the stranger.
May your day be as blessed as mine.

Decriminalizing homelessness

A homeless woman in California begs for help for herself and her child.

In most cities, it’s a crime to be homeless.

People who don’t have housing are chased out of parks and out from under bridges; they’re shooed away from coffee shops, even when it’s freezing or steamy hot outside. In many communities, police slash their tents — anything to get rid of the reminder that not everyone is doing well.

Last month in Rhode Island, though, the state passed a Homeless Bill of Rights, assuring that people will be treated with dignity whether or not they have a place to call home. The new law prohibits governments, police, healthcare workers, landlords or employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status.

That’s a huge leap, considering most places are taking more steps to criminalize homelessness by passing laws against sleeping on the street, loitering and panhandling.

Here in Asheville, I have talked to homeless people who came here because they heard this is a kind city. In many ways it is, but it has laws against sleeping in public places and panhandling.

People who don’t have homes usually don’t have jobs either because so many employers now do background checks and deny employment to anyone with bad credit, nevermind someone who has no home.

Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty told Huffington Post that her organization has noticed a sharp increase in laws around the country prohibiting panhandling, sleeping outdoors or loitering.

“We’ve seen a lot of egregious examples lately,” she said. “People are having their civil rights violated every day in cities across the country.”

The Denver City Council voted in May to prohibit eating or sleeping on public or private property without permission. In Dallas, city officials prohibit people from giving food to the homeless unless they register with the city first. Officials in Berkeley, Calif., have proposed a ban on sitting on sidewalks.

So, where are these people supposed to go? What are they supposed to do?

I’ve met a number of people who are homeless. Most have really tragic stories. Many are veterans who came back from war unable to cope with everyday life and denied the care they needed.

I’ve met women who were beaten by their husbands or boyfriends, who can’t go back to that relationship but have nowhere else to turn.

I know many people who have a mental illness but can’t get the care they need. Some of them lost their insurance because they lost their jobs.

I don’t know of anyone who is homeless by choice. I do know a number of very sad stories of misfortune that could happen to any of the rest of us.

Rhode Island got it right. How about the rest of the nation?

 

 

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