Poverty and Destitution

Poverty and Destitution


She was a big blousy red-headed woman with a good-natured face and eyes that squinted at you between long lashes. She was goodlooking in her way, but the day she came in to us she was filthy from sleeping out in basements, hallways, even on fire escapes. She was not alone, there was a tall gaunt man with a grey face with her. She was eight months pregnant and the two of them felt that some shelter was needed now. They were both very much afraid. When we became more acquainted with them we learned that they were legally married, and “in the church” too. Elizabeth was feeble-minded, and yet she tried to hang on to religion and one thing she knew was that she should not be married out of the church. He was the first addict I had ever encountered, and as far as I knew what he was taking were what they called on the Bowery “goof balls.” That, in combination with the kind of liquor he drank, was powerful enough to make him fall unconscious in his plate of soup when he came to eat with us. We did not have accommodations for married couples so we took Elizabeth into the rear house at Mott Street and put her husband in the front house into the ten-bed dormitory on the top floor.

John Cort, at present an organizer for the Newspaper Guild in Boston, had just come to us from Harvard hoping to become more acquainted with the field of labor, and found himself instead helping as he said to run “a flophouse.” John used to get down on his knees at night and pray. He prayed for himself and for those around him, the destitute and the poor I suppose. One of the seamen staying with us told me this.

We might as well clarify this notion of the destitute and the poor. The poor have some hope. They have not been so long in this condition but that they see some way out. They stay with us for months and years sometimes and then, finally, they get jobs, or they go back to school or they get married, or rejoin their marriage partners. Anyway, something happens to them, they survive and there is a certain joy and freedom in their condition. There is involuntary poverty and voluntary poverty, and we all know voluntary poverty who try to earn a living by writing. And there is, of course, the holy poverty of those who try daily to strip themselves of all attachments and to approximate to some extent the physical condition of the destitute. The destitute on the other hand have nothing—physically, intellectually, spiritually. You never see them reading a book or a newspaper as they wait on the breadline, or listening to music, or playing with an alley cat as they sit on a curb in the sun, or laughing, or telling stories.

There is life of a sort on the Bowery, a wild boisterous life, and seamen, longshoremen, restaurant and institution help and all kinds and conditions of workers come to live there for a time. There you can get a cubicle with clean bedding for a dollar a night and a ...

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