Thursday, February 26, 2009

Portrait: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Every Tuesday and Thursday night I make the kind of walk college students
across the country dread. It is a mile-long hike up a busy street to a
hated class; straight up hill- a bigger workout then you will ever receive
at the gym perched on top, looking over the city. The street is
homeless-central, and in the beginning of the school year, when it was
warm and the scent of new pencils and books filled the air, I would pass
one, maybe two homeless people each block. After months of this, same
night, same time, same people, you start to recognize them and they you.
It becomes a comfort; just like passing the same bookstore means I am half
way home on the way down in the early night. The bald man in army
fatigues and sneakers with holey toes on the corner of 5th and Oakland
means I am ¼ of the way to my class at the top of the hill.

When my lungs are about to burst, I take a break next to a building, pull
out my water bottle and smile at the person sitting on the ground next to
me. Sometimes this starts a conversation, a life story, and sometimes
the man or woman just frown and look away. Occasionally they do not even
seem to notice me, rocking and humming to their own beat. But the
stories! The misconception about homeless people is they are alcoholics
or druggies or that they are running from the law. I certainly have
avoided my share of people who look sketchy, who do not come across as
stable. For the most part though, the regulars are down on their luck,
maybe for several years now. She lost her job at McDonalds and the kids
grew up and moved away, so why get a regular job now? It is just her- all
alone- and she feels okay living this way.

Lately I have noticed an increase in the homeless people. As a rule, I
do not hand out money. I am in college, and although it is a public
institute and much more reasonable then many other universities, some
weeks I don’t even have enough quarters to do my laundry. When there are
$600 worth of books you have to purchase each semester, donating monetary
funds is not an option.

However, there are many things I can give. I am a great listener if you
want to tell me your story when you sit beside me on the bus. When I
occasionally I eat out, I always hand my leftovers to the person who looks
a little hungry. But is that enough? In this land of opportunity, where
people from other countries attend public American colleges on scholarship
and we send food to Africa with the regularity of the rising sun, how is
it that people are still hungry, still homeless, still illiterate, still
needy on our own streets? When will we learn that, like my mommy taught
me, you cannot criticize another until you yourself are perfect? And oh
America the Beautiful, you are far from perfect.

I believe in the goodness of people, which is why the government baffles
me. This trillion-dollar bail out? Who does this help? No one I know
personally is receiving any type of stimulus, and why should we feed money
to those who ran what they had into the ground? Take responsibility! You
have to help yourself before I can help you, because if you do not want to
be helped, then you have no hope.

As I sit at my desk in my warm apartment, I can see a man scavenging in
the garbage behind the College of Business Administration. Somewhere I
cannot see there are babies who are cold tonight, and a ten-year-old who
just wants a home. For every time I have been unsure if the $25000 a year
are worth it, times like this show why I am in college, why I am helping
myself get an education, why the late nights, thousands of dollars, and
peanut-butter sandwiches are worth it. Our country is so beautiful, from
the Jersey shore where I was born, the cornfields of central PA where I
grew up, and the valleys of California my aunt and uncle call home. Every
time I see a sunset I am still amazed, and every time I watch the 5PM news
my heart breaks. If we can’t help ourselves, believe in and hope for us,
for the people who care, then we can never help the world. And right now,
the world needs as much help as it can get.

Andrea Coté
University of Pittsburgh 2011
Pittsburgh, PA