[The following was written by Damien Barrett, who is working in rural Northern Michigan as a Team Leader for the Census 2000 Project.]
On a good day in Crawford County, located in the center of Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, I can hear the birds sing, smell the trees growing, and taste Nature’s cleansing wonder. The dense forest and State-owned land make up more than 70% of our county. It is a sportsman’s paradise with rivers, streams, lakes, and many more deer than people. It is called by people who have lived here “God’s Country.” Most tourists to this area ooh and ah over the beauty of the land and many buy plots of land here to settle into retirement. It is beautiful. It is also hiding a secret that many people either ignore, forget, or don’t know about.
Secreted away in the forests of Crawford county are some of the poorest people in Michigan, and, perhaps, the country.
I have forgotten that some people are willing to live in squalor. Listing addresses in the first wave of Census 2000 has brought me face to face with the most dejected and demoralized segments of our society, and it’s depressing. On television, poverty seems to be relegated to the slums of the cities. Poor people are homeless, I think. Bums and winos and bagladies. They live in garbage strewn streets and wear any warm clothing they can find. Television has painted this image of street-dwellers and poverty in my head. It wasn’t until I began canvassing the area around where I live that I realized the full scope of the problem.
Appalachia doesn’t hold a candle to what I’ve seen over the last few weeks. My knock at the door has been met by drunken residents more times than I can count. Abandoned vehicles litter yards. Trash is everywhere, decomposing. Some places the trash is so thick that the residents have shoveled a path to get to their door, like one would shovel snow in the winter. The stench is overwhelming. Inebriated residents sometimes can’t even tell me their own address or phone number (most don’t have phones). Children are often left to fend for themselves in dirty clothing and unimaginable filth. Half-starved dogs are chained to posts in yards, often their circles the only clear spot in the entire yard. It’s amazing to think that a dog will move trash from it’s area but a human will let it pile up in their house and yard. And we chain the dogs?
Catching a glimpse inside one of these hovels is even more depressing. Empty pizza boxes, rotting food, dirty clothes, and even diapers are left wherever they fall. I imagine that if I were to go around at night, I would undoubtedly see the rats and roaches that must be there. Often a place like this will have a nice television (some even with a satellite dish) planted in the middle of this abject poverty. I am reminded of the villagers’ huts I saw when I was a kid living on the small South Pacific island of American Samoa. Not that the huts were filthy, but that there would usually be a television (a modern device) in the middle of the primitive hut. Seeing televisions and satellite dishes in the middle of such squalor is the same kind of inexplicable statement of our technological century.
Seeing the filth that people will live in has humbled me. At times I feel sorry for those people I see, sorry that they have lost any hope and drive to get out of such a situation, sorry that I can’t help them, sorry that they must live in such conditions. I feel especially sorry for the children subjected so such a miserable lifestyle. I wish I could give them all money and clothe and feed the children I see. But throwing money at the situation does not work. Our government’s welfare and food stamps have become crutches for many people in this county and only add to the misery. I don’t know the solution. I don’t know how to help these people. All I do know is that in a country as rich as ours, no one should have to live this way. Whether it is by choice or circumstance that these people live as they do doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we become aware of the problem and make an effort to solve it. Crawford County’s dirty laundry has to be aired out.
“Hello, my name is Damien Barrett, and I’m listing addresses in preparation for Census 2000…”
Posted by Cameron Barrett at August 7, 1998 11:59 PM