The Equalizer

War and the Homeless in Nashville

My Iraqi friend, Ali, says that before the first Gulf War, Iraq didn’t have any homeless people. The rich took care of the poor and the sick. It was a disgrace not to.[1] I feel funny telling him about my work with Nashville’s homeless knowing that we have been bombing his homeland.

John is one of the many homeless Vietnam veterans that I see everyday. Last week he applied for disability for the third time as he was denied the first two. To justify his request, he asked me to help him type the horrifying experiences of his life as a 17-year old soldier in Vietnam. He still wakes up crying in the middle of the night. As I typed, I thought, “Saddam may be a maniac killer, but war is never just.”

War is a major cause of homelessness, and we have been bombing a country whose people knew how to keep each other off the street.

In the dayroom
To be honest, I don’t hear a lot of war talk among our homeless participants in the day room. The television only gets turned on while we are on break from classes. We alternate between The History Channel and CNN . I haven’t heard any grumbling about CNN, but I don’t think the majority of participants care what is on TV as long as it is turned on.

Like my co-workers, roommates, friends, and volunteers, the homeless I work with every day definitely have opinions about the war. Many of these opinions are emotional responses rather than researched, conscientious convictions. While there has been a lot of war coverage in the news, as far as I know,
the New York Times doesn’t have a homeless war correspondent so let me convey to you what a few of Nashville’s homeless have said:

“Let’s blow up them terrorist frogs,” said the drooling-at-the-anticipation-of-conflict Joel, referring to the French and the Iraqis.

“I don’t think we should be over there killing innocent people,” remarked Carl as he surveyed his surroundings and acted suspicious. He quickly apologized for discussing war with me. “Men aren’t supposed to worry women with these sorts of topics.”

“I’m against the war,” whispered Eric, like he didn’t want anyone else to hear him. He told me this in the library so I won’t read too much into the whisper.

War and life in Nashville
Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning, finding out about the conflict news from the day before seems like an important, politically conscious part of my day. However, the most important part of my day is still to come. The minute I get off the bus and walk down the alley towards Campus , it usually happens that I forget about global politics as my head is filled with the more pressing matters of GED classes, mail, suspensions, and state ID’s.

As this Gulf War rages, life here continues to happen: the suited employees of Bell South in downtown Nashville haven’t stopped typing on their computers, the diner up the street hasn’t stopped serving burgers, the musicians in the honkey tonk bars on Broadway haven’t stop playing their country blues for day-time tourists, and America’s homeless haven’t become any less homeless.

The equalizer
reality, the homeless are already in a moderate state of anxiety because obtaining the basic needs of food, shelter, and security are such a daily struggle. I jokingly think to myself, maybe disaster is the equalizer between the homeless and the housed. I become anxious when I consciously think about the disaster of human suffering. This war has increased my anxiety, but then so does rain in Nashville because I know that some of the men and women I interact with everyday are getting wet in their “camps” as they try to sleep.

[1] While the point about the lack of homelessness could not be statistically confirmed, it is well documented that begging was relatively unknown in Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War and that Iraq possessed a large middle class that is now close to decimated. –The Editors