On the morning of the first day of the forum, we were greeted by a body on our doorstep. Face down, pants down, matted dreads and tattered clothes. It could have been man or woman, dead or alive. The smell was as confronting as the sight, and the audible gasps from our group roused this poor woman from her sleep. I tried to converse with her:
Do you speak English?
Are you OK?
She had managed to get in through the front door of the apartment building, which didn't lock if not slammed shut. We offered her some food and then I asked her to leave. She accepted only chocolate, and went about getting up to go. Jess helped her put her jacket on, and the woman walked down a flight of stairs before sitting down again to eat the chocolate. She struggled to open the packaging, and I noticed that her thumbs were not opposing, but deformed. I asked her again to leave the apartment building, as kindly as I could. She sighed and obliged, abandoning the chocolate. We followed her down and I tried to give her the chocolate again outside, but she refused and kept walking.
I do not wish to seek to justify my actions, or explain away the circumstances, or romanticise the experience. It was awful, her situation is unfair, and I acted somewhat selfishly. I feel that I could have done more, and that I should have. And yet I know that she probably didn't expect it. In any case, the following morning, which was the second and final day of the forum, there she was again. A kind of second chance borne out of her utter desperation, by which she simply couldn't afford to hold grudges. This time we left food, walked past and let her sleep. Not to suggest a happy ending. Nor to deny the fact that I, and possibly others, pulled the front door slightly harder, subsequently. I know I still could have done more.
But, as our head delegate Jess so well articulated, this woman was there on our doorstep both mornings of the forum, and made the issue of inequality one of real and corporeal consequence for us. This woman gave us a face to put to the numbers and statistics. When we talked of AirBnB making housing unaffordable for local residents, we could think of this woman. Indeed, we were using AirBnB to stay in that apartment, which could otherwise have been made available to a local resident such as her.
Not to imply an easy answer. Indeed, one of the other conversations had at the forum was around the danger of "the politics of easy", which seeks to suggest that complex problems can be solved with simple solutions. Writer Matthew D'Ancona identified Trump's travel ban as an example of this. In France, access to housing is a legal right, but this doesn't count for much if that right can't be enforced. We need a toolbox of solutions, for an array of social and economic problems. We must resist the temptation to oversimplify, but we must also resist the temptation to leave economics to the experts, the perils of which are illustrated by author Zach Ward-Perkins in his book "The Econocracy". We must realise our bargaining power as consumers, engaging in economics on a daily basis, and we must realise the intersection and interconnectedness between all issues faced by individuals and society at large.
I give thanks for the confronting way in which this woman gave us context for the forum, for the gentle and forgiving way she sought to meet her needs, and for the brave and courageous way she continues to do so. I carry her face, and this encounter, with me in the hope that it will cultivate a more constructive and courageous response on my part in future.
All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.