Tahlequah Daily Press

December 13, 2013

We may not see the poor, but they’re here


staff

TAHLEQUAH — For residents of metropolitan areas, it may be easy to ignore the plight of the less fortunate. Harried commuters step over the ragged forms in the subway, stroll past the cup-rattlers on the sidewalks, and choose bus routes that won’t take them through the slums. Citizens become so inured to the “unwashed masses” that they don’t even notice them anymore.

Small-town residents tend to see themselves in a more positive, compassionate light. Local folks recognize some of their neighbors live in poverty, and that’s why they volunteer at soup kitchens, donate clothing to resale shops, and support worthy endeavors like Hope House, Help-In-Crisis and the O-Si-Yo Men’s Shelter.

But though we may think we’re doing what we can to help, we’re just as guilty as our urban-dwelling counterparts when it comes to turning a blind eye on extreme poverty and misfortune. Sometimes, the eye isn’t deliberately blind. Human beings simply tend to tune out sounds we find unpleasant, and look elsewhere when the sight is disturbing in the long term. If we look, if we listen, we might have to do more than flip a couple of mites in the offering plate at church to help “the poor” – a vague category of people whose existence we acknowledge, but whose personal stories we will never hear, nor do we want to.

That’s exactly the predicament in which a number of local residents found themselves recently, when they were forced to take a hard look at their “neighbors” living at the Stepping Stone rooming house. The sad truth is, if a 3-year-old boy had not died there, no one would think twice about this facility, though everyone understood it to be housing of last resort – a place most Tahlequah residents would, like their counterparts in the city, circumvent in their daily travels about town.

In the wake of the tragedy, Facebook caught fire with discussion. Initially, almost everyone was disturbed by the purportedly deplorable condition of the rooming house, which amassed code violations so numerous its closure couldn’t be avoided. Citizens were also shocked by the seemingly high rent – $450 to $500 a month – charged to residents. Even with all bills paid, this seemed steep; in Norman or Stillwater, many students pay $350 to $400 a month, all bills paid, for decent apartments with semi-private bathrooms. By comparison, Stepping Stone residents were getting skinned – or since most of these folks were on disability or some other type of public assistance, the taxpayers were getting skinned.

Then, talk turned to the residents themselves, with some citizens dismissing them as drug addicts or mere deadbeats. It did not occur to many folks that some  rooming house residents were down on their luck – and Stepping Stone, with no required deposit or credit rating, was their only alternative.

It was a rude awakening for many, but others – perhaps wishing to appear “in the know,” or perhaps having legitimate information – said they had “always known” about Stepping Stone. If that is the case, we have to wonder why people like this who are making the most noise now weren’t rattling cages earlier. It’s a fact that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if no one complains, nothing is going to happen, best intentions notwithstanding.

Ignorance may have been bliss, but no more. Now that we know many of our neighbors need help, we’re obliged to give it. One way is to become involved with the Tahlequah Cares project, which the Press profiled in its Thursday edition. The group, led by Denise LaGrand and Toni Bailey, has a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/610939405630374/ ?ref=br_tf.

Of course, the city’s more traditional and long-standing charities can always use extra help, in terms of helping hands or donations. And all are deserving.

LaGrand and Bailey are putting their money and spare time where their mouths are. How about the rest of us?