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Hurricane or No Hurricane—Why Don’t They Just Go To Work?

by Rita Corbin
  Dorothy Day said, “We can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize all our actions, and know that God will multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

In the days and weeks after the massive floods in Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey, even the harshest judge of the poor could hardly ask, “Why don’t they work?”

Water, in some places deep enough to submerge grown men, trapped people in their houses, streets or neighborhoods. No one could go to work. Work places were closed for days or closed permanently because of flood damage. The schools were closed. Banks were closed. The grocery stores were closed. Gas stations were closed. Even the bars were closed.

Domestic workers became unemployed because the houses they cleaned were uninhabitable. The roads were lakes. No one could pick up day laborers. Hundreds of thousands of cars were destroyed in a city that        depends on cars for transportation to work. Buses did not run immediately.

Even when people were able to leave their homes safely, other tragedies awaited. In one case, one hundred fifty immigrants were hired to muck out damaged homes. After days of backbreaking work in the humid, moldy, mosquito-ridden buildings, they were not paid. They were brave enough to call the police, who extracted a promise of payment from the heartless contractor. At the time this story was told to us, the workers had still not been paid. The people who relayed this story did not shout and scream. Their faces were controlled, showing muted anger and frustration. They had tried their best to work.

Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church tell us that defrauding workers of their just wage is a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

Immigrant individuals or families who can hardly make it from paycheck to paycheck could not pay their rent, buy food or diapers or other necessities. Beds were ruined. The walls in their rented apartments became infested with mold, but landlords still demanded rent on time. The fabric of life was disrupted.

The undocumented were afraid to go to the large centers for assistance for fear of deportation. They stayed in moldy apartments rather than risk encountering ICE officials.

As soon as people could get out, every morning we awoke to find long lines of people waiting for help.

Even the Food Bank was flooded for a number of days. Amazingly, the farmers’ market was open and we could take our truck and purchase several thousand pounds of beans and rice. Even before we posted our needs on our web site, parishes and individuals started bringing canned food, baby formula, and diapers for children and adults in large quantities. There was an outpouring of help. Some brought towels and blankets. Some sent socks and others brought new shoes to replace those ruined in the floods. When the food bank reopened we were able to receive disaster rations and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. A few cots and portable baby beds arrived. When we posted on our web site a link to buy a cot with a mattress, those flowed in. A rice company sent more beans and rice. We had to stop receiving clothing for a while because we had too much. Many came to volunteer. The generosity was inspiring.

Thanks to generous financial donations, in this crisis we were able to help with a portion of the rent for those who had been unable to work. We gave food and diapers to many hundreds of people each week. People began arriving earlier and earlier in the morning, first at 5:00 a.m. and then even at midnight, stretching around the block, to be sure they would not miss the opportunity to receive some aid. People jostled for a place in line. Passing out numbers helped create order in a neverending line. Our Catholic Workers were taken aback that people in their desperation became aggressive and even complained. The situation was overwhelming, even to the point of tears for the CW’s and the victims of the flood.

One woman was visibly angry at having to wait. We asked her to forgive us because there were so many people coming and we were very tired. We tried to elicit sympathy by saying, “No one pays us to do this work.” Unimpressed, she responded: “Yes, but you will receive your reward in heaven.” An unexpected reminder.

It was touching when some whose homes were flooded mentioned that they had lost Mark Zwick’s prayer card in the water. We were glad to provide another.

Struck by Lightning

As if Harvey weren’t enough, Mother Nature attacked us once more.

There was a monstrous crash during a thunderstorm in one of our buildings. We looked up to see an almost blinding flash of light in the kitchen over the refrigerator. It looked like a light bulb exploding–except that there was no light bulb there. Then there was an alarming smell of burning. We checked all around the house, Louise’s granddaughter Noemí even braving the 100-year-old ladder leading to the lightless, floorless attic, but thank the Lord, there was no fire.

We found that Casa Juan Diego’s main computer was dead, the television was dead, and two landline phones were also fried. Just what we needed at this time!

Why Don’t They Just Go to Work?

In the midst of so many victims of Hurricane Harvey, we had to keep our houses running and our regular sick and injured people came for help. Some of them were also flooded out.

Not Just Band-Aids

Dorothy Day was criticized for doing band-aid work. People told her that helping the poor was like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. Instead of wasting her efforts on the people, she should change the system to make sure there was not so much injustice. Dorothy agreed, but noted that in the meantime she could not ignore the human persons in front of her.

We agree.

People sometimes also ask us why we are helping people with what they call band-aids. “Those people need to go to work,” they say. Some recommend that we ask immigrants who come to us for help, “Why don’t you just get a job?”

Our financial help generally goes to the very ill and the injured, the paralyzed. And so this question is ironic at best. We also help with food, adult diapers and other medical supplies. They cannot receive government help. Many must have a family member to stay with them. The absurdity of the idea of all these people with their broken limbs, broken backs, and broken heads going to work overcomes us at times either with tears or with laughter that such a question could be asked.

The names have been changed here to protect the innocent.

Jorge

Jorge, for example, came in to ask for help. He still has the bullet in his head from when he was assaulted. He held a tissue to his eye where it is bleeding. Doctors tried to place a prosthesis there after he lost sight from that eye. The scar from his brain surgery was very visible. After we helped him, he rushed off to the hospital where his wife had been taken with a potential heart attack. They are in such need that he felt he had to come to Casa Juan Diego before going to the hospital.

Why isn’t he working?

Gloria

Gloria always surprises us. She comes in on crutches. Her leg was amputated below the knee because she has cancer. Her mother helps her care for her three little children. As she continues her cancer treatments, somehow she is always smiling when she talks with us.

Maybe she will be able to work one day if the cancer goes into remission and she can obtain a prosthesis for her leg, but there is no guarantee.

Francisca

Francisca is a quadriplegic in a wheel chair. She comes in each month in her motorized wheel chair for help with her rent. She received her wheel chair from the group RSVP, which also helps the disabled. Francisca lives with her father and her ten-year-old daughter. Her father works, but cannot pay everything, so we assist. Francisca is paralyzed because her husband stabbed her in the neck.

Why doesn’t she find a job?

Mrs. Garcia and Her Son

Mrs. Garcia comes when she can to receive help with the rent. Her adult son has tumors in his lung and is bedbound. Why doesn’t she go to work? She is able-bodied. The only problem is that her son, who is fully awake, but very depressed with his situation, cannot be left alone. We send our paper and books in Spanish for her to read to him.

Rafael

Rafael came in the other day, on crutches. He was a roofer and had fallen and broken his leg. His wife, Maria, was with him. Their baby is due next week. They have no money for the rent this month. We asked Rafael if his boss had helped him. With a wry smile, he said the man gave him $100.

We can’t imagine why he doesn’t continue working with his broken leg.

Rosa

When Rosa came, she had a cast on her arm. We asked her what had happened. When she was going up the few steps into the taco truck where she worked, a man had attacked her, struck her arm, and stolen her purse. She asked us for help for one month until her arm could heal. We asked if she had children or a husband. Yes, she had seven children, but her husband was deported two weeks earlier.

God willing, she will soon be able to work again.

Gonzalo

The hospital called to ask if we could help Gonzalo’s family. He was walking when a car hit him—a hit and run accident. Now he is in a coma and someone needs to be with him all the time. Gonzalo’s father is a skilled worker, but now it is hard for him to get out to work because he takes care of his son. Gonzalo’s young brother works, but cannot pay all the bills. Could we help? If only they would just work more…

The door to our chapel was broken. Gonzalo’s father wouldn’t take no for an answer when he offered to fix it. He asked a friend to sit with his son during the time he was working on the door.

Esmeralda

Esmeralda struggles to come in, with her oxygen tank following behind her. She has end-stage renal disease. She speaks little, but her friend came to say how much she appreciates our help.

If she would only work!

Graciela

Graciela has been caring for her bedbound husband for several years since he had a stroke. We help her each month with the rent and food. Her friends give her old clothes, which she sells to try to help herself.

Why can she not do more?

We admire so many families who are struggling to care for their loved ones. We are grateful for the help of our readers, at any time but especially as they have tried to recover from the floods, which makes possible the assistance to Jesus, ragged and broken in the poor, who comes to us—even though he may not work!

 

Houston Catholic Worker, October-December, 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4.