It had been about a month since I started gathering coffee grounds for compost. I had gone from gas station to gas station, explaining the project and leaving them with buckets to store compostables. After a certain amount of trial and error, I had figured out that the easiest way to carry all those buckets was to trundle them along in a wheelbarrow. And I had figured out that if I timed it right, I hit a local mini-golf course and Pokemon Go hotspot at the perfect time for a lunch break in a pretty spot with 6 pokestops available.
I’d grown really fond of this mini-golf place over the weeks. They were closed for the season, but they had signs up welcoming PoGo players. I imagined making them a stop on my rounds once they opened, buying lunches at the snack bar in thanks for the happiness their space had given me. This was the happy meditative state I was in this morning as I ate an early lunch.
Then the owner walked up to me.
“What are you doing here?”
I explained that I was playing Pokemon and pointed to my phone.
“This is private property. You can’t just camp here.”
I was completely confused until I saw the dirty looks he was shooting at my wheelbarrow.
I realized that he thought I was someone who couldn’t afford housing.
My first instincts were to point out that he was wrong, that I was a middle-class gardener who lived nearby. I wanted to point out that very few unhoused people carry around 30 gallons of coffee grounds with them. I wanted to point to my noise cancelling headphones, my expensive work boots, and my other signifiers of socio-economic status. I wanted to point out that he and I had actually met several times before at Pokemon events held at the site.
But almost as quickly as those thoughts flooded in, I knew they were inappropriate.
The urge to prove myself safely middle class, to separate myself from the marginalized community I had been erroneously placed in, was a branch of exactly the same prejudice that had caused the mini-golf owner to see me as a problem. I had sat down for less than half an hour to play Pokemon Go, as several nearby signs had invited me to do. His treatment of me as a trespasser wasn’t wrong because I lived in a three bedroom house half a mile away with my husband and dog. His treatment of me as a trespasser was wrong because I wasn’t trespassing.
It’s easy for those of us who can afford housing to overlook the petty discrimination that gets aimed at those who can’t.
Perceived social class and housing status can be the difference between being a customer and being a trespasser, between waiting for a shop to open and loitering, and between sitting down to eat your lunch and “illegal camping.” If you’ve ever carried a daypack into a shop that said “leave all backpacks at the counter”, confident that they didn’t really mean *your* backpack, you know exactly what I mean.
Once the mini-golf owner realized that I was middle class, he was content to let me stay.
But I probably won’t spend time there any more. It’s hard to feel the same sort of rosy glow about a place that I now know would treat me very differently if I were poor. I don’t want to turn the owner into a strawman villain. He’s the product of a local culture more viciously snobbish towards the poor and unhoused than anything I’ve found in the rest of the country. Like I said, I’ve met him before, and he makes a genuine effort to be a nice guy. But as so often happens around here, that effort only extends to the people his culture has taught him to think of as real people.
If gardeners look like people who can’t afford housing, doesn’t that imply that people who can’t afford housing look like gardeners?
I don’t want to imply that people should respect unhoused people because they might secretly be middle class gardeners in disguise. I want people to recognize that if they think it’s cool that I choose to walk around with a wheelbarrow picking up compostables so that I can grow food, they should apply that same standard to someone who has to walk around with a shopping cart picking up aluminum cans so that they can buy food. I wish that I had half the resourcefulness and ability to give discarded items a new life as the average person who has lived without housing. If an urban Permie/Upcycler was looking for a research project, getting to know the local unhoused community and learning about their techniques for re-purposing “garbage” could yield uses for urban waste streams that those of us with cozy houses and apartments have never thought of. (And, as always when you ask for knowledge from a marginalized community, PAY AND CREDIT THEM.)