I came across an article recently – Poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. A photographer set out from California on a trip across the US to find and photograph the poorest communities, and was surprised that he never had to go more than 20 miles to find another community with a significant percentage of the population living in poverty.
There is poverty in Panama also, sometimes extreme poverty. The indigenous seem to suffer the most, especially in the comarka or land under their control. But, there is poverty in the general population as well. It is worse in rural areas but also present in cities. We have seen slums in cities, and shacks made of foraged materials along roads in the country. I know there are many protections for the indigenous and programs to help the poor, and frustration among the general population that the helping hands aren’t always used or welcomed.
I have rarely seen begging on the streets of Panama. Occasionally there is an indigenous person, usually a woman or child, outside a supermarket or place where people gather. I have seen a few people begging in Santiago where people get off the buses for a break and a bite to eat. There is a blind man I’ve seen a few times, and occasionally an indigenous frail looking woman. I have also seen many people drop a few coins in their cups as they get back on the bus.
There is also poverty in the US, and the homeless population has been on my mind a lot since my bicycle trip. Then, I saw the article and these photos by Matt Black from the article above (check them out, very striking black and white photos). I think many agree that the distance between the haves and have nots is increasing, and it seems that more people are struggling. The last recession hit many people hard, and the lack of job opportunities is still a problem especially for people closer to retirement age.
The people living on the streets are at the bottom, and they seem to be everywhere I went. In my experience when I was homeless (by choice on my bike) I learned a valuable lesson about the social isolation these people also face. The majority of homeless who I met were not young people either, but people probably in their 40’s, 50’s, or more.
There was a lady living in this RV with her disabled grandson in an RV park in central Washington state, trying to make it on $750/month social security. The roof leaked, the electric didn’t work, and the toilet had fallen through the floor. She said the low income housing program had been cut back so there was nothing for her, and she had no idea what she was going to do.
There was the homeless man on the bus. The bus driver was kind enough to give him a ride to the next town, and he had all his belongings in a trash bag. He said he had just gotten out of the hospital with pneumonia. He was still weak and having trouble breathing, but he was taking antibiotics and breathing pills. He only had a daughter who was estranged so he was very alone. As a nurse I wouldn’t have a lot of hope for his health, sending him back to the streets in his condition.
These are only two people for whom I have photographs. I also spoke to others, the guy who’s only friend was his dog and a sign that said if you don’t help me, at least help my dog. The lady with her stuff in a shopping cart who said she just walked every day hoping to find a place where she could spend the night in peace. There was one who didn’t want to be approached but all the others seemed surprised and happy that I would take the time for a short chat.
I know there are some people who choose to live on the streets. There are others who are mentally ill. But, how many are not there by choice but can’t get themselves back on track? My CA daughter works for the county government. After hours they open their large parking lot to people living in cars and RV’s, and it’s so full that they are looking for more space. In Oregon I saw a news segment from Portland. People don’t want the homeless in RV’s and cars parking in their neighborhoods, but if everyone feels like this where can they go? In Seattle, I saw another news segment about the homeless living in tents, and they are causing a problem with their trash but there are no provisions for them to dispose of their trash.
This poverty and homeless problem really bothered me, and still does. I have never seen it at such close range or talked to so many people. When I lived in Sarasota FL there were homeless people, three I knew fairly well, all mentally ill and the community took care of them. But, the community also put a lot of effort into pushing the homeless out. The benches in the park were removed so people couldn’t hang out, for example.
I know people are trying to help and there are programs, but it’s obviously not solving the problem. And, when you add the social isolation and disrespect from the general population, it’s even harder for people. At least here in Panama I don’t see that. You are judged much less on your economic circumstances. I have no answers. Panama is not my native country and people with much more understanding and wisdom are working on it. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m in sync with the US either, where priorities seem to have gone so far off track.
From the article above, this interesting thought from the photographer – “… what has surprised me is the similarities I have encountered as I traveled from one community to another. All these diverse communities are connected, not least in their powerlessness. In the mainstream media, poverty is often looked at in isolation, but it is an American problem. It seems to me that it goes unreported because it does not fit the way America sees itself.”