While recently flying cross-country, I was surprised to find that on both my flights the sink in the lavatory had been covered in duct tape and under the faucets were napkins with the words ‘no water’ hastily written in pen. I began to consider all of the situations in which a lack of running water would prove torturous. Among other traumatizing circumstances, I came up with classics like messy toddlers in addition to more obscure, but definitely plausible, cases like turbulence causing your neighbor to spill their Bloody Mary all over your lap or if the pen you were chewing on broke and you received a mouthful of purple ink. “This is so unfair,” I thought. “First they raise airfare, now they charge for luggage and drinks, you can’t even get a bag of pretzels without forking over a Washington.” The word ‘revolt’ flitted through my mind, but after landing and grabbing my bags, I was grateful for the running water in the crowded airport bathroom. Along with flu germs and bacteria, I washed away the feeling of complete helplessness I had acquired while suspended 35,000 feet in the air.
I was eager to resume my normal existence. As a white, middle-class American citizen, this includes free-flowing water and a high level of independence and control over my life. It is a luxury for sure, and for many it is one that has become a target of the economic downturn. With home foreclosures and layoffs, owning a home, a cornerstone of the American dream, is a reality for an increasingly smaller portion of our population. Today, journalists cover middle class families living week to week in hotels, editorials agonize over rising joblessness, and mainstream media has latched onto tent cities as a symbol of the economic downturn. A recent Oprah feature, chronicling faces of the recession, centered on Tammy, a 47 year old who has lived with her husband in a tent city for less than a year, after he lost his job. According to her, the most difficult adjustment is the lack of everyday comforts that they had previously overlooked. “Taking a shower when I want, walking into my bathroom, turning the light on,” she said. “I miss looking like a girl.”
The story of middle class individuals who have lost everything in the recent economic downturn is tragic, but perhaps even more so, is the story of those who have struggled with homelessness for years, lives often encumbered by addiction and mental health problems. The chronically homeless have never received enough public support and now they are being largely ignored in favor of people more ‘suitable’ for our attention and sympathy. While chronic homelessness has decreased in the past decade, numbers still run much too high. According to 2005 and 2006 statistics from the National Center for Family Homelessness, one in 50 American children is homeless — a number that will inevitably rise with the recession. The current level of indignation only came about when homelessness became a problem for a growing number of middle-class Americans, people whose only previous experience of homelessness most likely meant renovation. They are a group accustomed to running water and at least some dignity.
Since my flight, I daringly posed as a journalist and determined from a friendly, and trusting, airline media representative that running water is still custom and that repairs most likely caused my dehydrated flights. He chuckled when I asked whether they intended to discontinue water in the lavatories, dismissing my conspiracy theories. So is there a lesson from all this? The proverb ‘You never miss the water till the well runs dry’ seems particularly fitting. The recession has resulted in coverage of homelessness, a devastating and overlooked issue. But it is not time to categorize the homeless into worthy and undeserving, to help some and ignore others. In fact, lets stop treading water and get rid of homelessness altogether.