Two Raging Fires

Posted: August 15, 2009 in Compassion, Discrimination, Health, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Morality

As I write this, San Luis Obispo’s (SLO) air quality is being adversely affected by two wild fires.

One, referred to as the Lockheed Fire, is near Santa Cruz in northern California.

The second, known as the La Brea Fire, is just outside of Santa Maria – some 30 miles to the south – and has been burning since last Saturday.  

An article in the SLO Tribune said that the U.S. Forest Service said that the La Brea Fire has burned about 105 square miles of brush, and has ordered the evacuation of 234 homes and ranches in the area.

Because of wind and weather conditions which continue to change, both fires have brought quite a bit of smoke and ash into SLO County.

Another article in the SLO Tribune made mention that "… conditions could get worse over the weekend."

It also advised County residents to "… reduce their exposure to the particulates in the air by limiting outdoor activities."

That last line has me more than a bit concerned for the well being of the county’s homeless.

For the overwhelming majority of them, "limiting outdoor activities" will be next to impossible.

Not because they’re looking forward to a weekend of "fun in the sun" or being out of doors. And, it certainly is not because they relish the idea of being exposed to all of that smoke and ash.

Rather, they have no choice.

There are very few places where they will be able to be indoors. Consequently, they will find it hard to escape having to breathe the smoky, ash filled air.

Perhaps it was this underlying knowledge which was partially responsible for some rather unseemly behavior on my part just a few evenings ago.

I had gone to a local Starbucks for a Green Tea Frappuccino.

Seated on the ground, at a respectable distance from the door, was a homeless gentleman who I’ve become acquainted with. Beside him sat his backpack. He was sipping a regular iced tea from the Starbucks. And, he was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

I nodded in his direction – acknowledging him – with the intention of stopping to chat with him for a few minutes when I came back out.

When I finally did come out, I saw a woman walk over toward the homeless gentleman – stopping several feet away from him – and, without having been provoked, say meanly:

"If you really want to be worthy, you’ll go out there and help them fight that fire!"

The gentleman just looked down at the ground in embarrassment, saying nothing.

It was quite obvious that her words were meant to wound.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I felt the anger well up within me. And, before she could say anything else to him, I said to her:

"What did you say to him? How dare you! Who the hell do you think you are to judge who is and who isn’t worthy?"

Then I stood there; glaring at her with angry eyes; daring her to say something else.

Later that night, as I stood in the shower, I found myself weeping.

I felt a bitter disappointment at myself for how I had behaved toward that woman and the things I’d said to her.

Yes, I could justify my behavior by telling myself that I was coming to the defense of one of the community’s homeless – and therefore marginalized – citizens.

However, just because I may have had what seemed to me a valid reason for how I’d behaved and what I’d said to that woman, doesn’t necessarily mean that I had the right to do so.

And, there is a difference.

I’m sure that woman thought she had a good reason for what she’d said to that homeless gentleman. But she didn’t really have the right.

Furthermore, just because she behaved toward that gentleman in a mean-spirited manner, doesn’t mean I had license to behave toward her in a similar fashion.

The truth is that I should know better. More importantly is that I do know better. I could – and should – have used a more disciplined way of defusing the situation. But, I didn’t. That’s what bothers me.

There is one thought which has been weighing heavily on my mind about the entire incident: might I have done more damage than good by my behavior?

It is, after all, a possibility that the things I’d said to her only served to reinforced her personal distaste for the homeless.

And – that thought has left me feeling rather crummy ever since.

  1. Steven says:

    Well Michael, people are human, including you, bro. sometimes things like that just set us off. One of the things I’ve done to help me control my outbursts – cuz I know they’re coming, given the number of a–holes our world holds today – is to have some canned info ready to fly for people who verbally abuse or berate homeless individuals in my vicinity. Rather than fight anger with anger, I like to say something like, “no ma’am, it’s not that he’s not worthy, it’s that the average wage in this country wouldn’t support a fruit fly and once you’re on the street, it’s next to impossible to get off it. Have you ever been homeless, ma’am? Well then, I suggest you step off and leave the man in peace.”

    Easier for me to tell you this than to be caught up in the moment and get it out as smoothly, but if you practice it a bit, you’ll quickly get the hang of it. I picked up this ability from having so many microphones, cameras and reporters jammed into my face.

    Great piece my friend in the west; hold your head high and walk with dignity brother, knowing you are simply responding to the greatest human emotion ever; compassion for fellow humans.

    • michael says:


      Thank you for the words of encouragement…

      Most times, as a rule, I do manage to find a way of intervening and diffusing such a situation without being so coarse on my part. In this instance, unfortunately, the worst in me came out.

      Hopefully, the incident I wrote about in this post will remain near the surface of my memory as a constant reminder that there is always a better way to approach any given situation.

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