That chair in the dumpster I remember clearly, because a man without a home, his name is Joel, was pulling it out. He explained to me that grey afternoon how he was going to use it in his tent at the back of the park--how it would be like a table for him, rather than a chair, how he would sit on a rock and put his writing on the chair, how it would fit just fine in the furthest back corner of the tent, and how his writing would stay dry when it rained. How this chair was just perfect for him.
Broken chairs are, in some way, perfect metaphors for my homeless neighbors, I think to myself that evening, sitting in my warm house, writing on a oak desk, noting all of the furniture around me, lots of furniture, all if it unbroken. Broken chairs are set aside so casually at first, just like the people who so casually are set aside when they cross the line from having to home to not having a home. Joel's last straw, after the crack in his leg from the car accident, and after losing his hourly job when the leg couldn't be properly fixed, and after he was turned down for disability, the thing that broke him was casual and small: the landlord raised the rent. And just like a chair with one leg that is loose and unstable, Joel was set aside, out of our thoughts, off there in the corner, out of sight of all of us with homes.
There are people who have tried to fix Joel, just like there are enterprising chair fixers. Some focus on his drinking, others on getting his disability approved, others on simply trying to get him inside. Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces so many broken chairs. Can we change the design, can we change the materials, can we test the product before selling it? Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces people without homes. Can we change our definitions, can we change our supports, can we test new ideas before we impose them on the people who live on the streets?
Perhaps it is not important that chairs, which are things, end up brushed aside, hidden under the leaves, and then end up in the trash. But it is important that people--real people, people named Joel, and named Anna, and named Butch and named Daryl, real people are brushed aside, hidden, trashed. Real people whose brokenness is disability, whose brokenness is addiction, whose brokenness is mental illness, whose brokenness is simply poverty, these real people are treated as trash, and thrown away with as little thought as we throw away a broken chair.