Homeless at the Congressional Black Caucus

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(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Sometimes you can go to a professional event and the most important thing that happens is way outside the convention center. You’re spending all day looking for an angel investor and you end up meeting them in the parking lot. Happens all the time. I had a similar experience at the Congressional Black Caucus convention last week. As much as I wanted the event to be about the making contacts and informative panels, the most powerful event of the weekend for me was meeting Oscar Quinzero, a man I’ll never see or meet again, but who defined the weekend for me.

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If you’ve never had the experience of attending a substantive legislative conference, the CBC (as it’s affectionately referred to) is one of the best events to go to. The panels are helpful and informative and generally focus on solutions rather than repeating old problems. Even the panel on AIDS, which provided some staggeringly depressing statistics about HIV and its spread in the Black and Latino communities, was still sobering in that it focused on solutions that are out there rather than lamenting the current situation. Further, it is good to know that the members of the Congressional Black Caucus clearly have not taken Barack Obama’s election as an opportunity to rest on their laurels. Many commentators and activists feared that Obama’s election meant organizations would assume the “Black president” would get things done on his own. If anything, the main buzz at the convention was that Obama’s election simply meant that now there was an “ear” in the White House to the concerns of African-Americans but that by no means suggests that now issues of importance are automatically priorities on the president’s agenda.

Even in the midst of this information overload, it’s the little things that tend to take up the most of your time and attention. While leaving the opening night party I saw a strange scene that sort of reminded me of the whole reason that the Congressional Black Caucus exists, but not for the best reasons. There was a bit of an argument going on between a congressional staffer from Mississippi and a man in his family. Angry words were being exchanged, and the man walked off with his wife and four sons in tow. Mind you this was late at night so it immediately got my attention that anyone had their kids out this late. Turns out the man’s name was Oscar Quinzero, and he had the misfortune of being homeless and was sharing his story with a group of men and women outside one of the greatest collections of African-American wealth and power that occurs in this country. Oscar was a former hotel employee who got laid off a couple of months ago. Without his income he and his wife and four sons lost their house to foreclosure and now they wandered the streets searching for shelter, help and hopefully, another job. This is not a unique story by any stretch as more American families of all colors are hitting the unforgivable streets in search of work and shelter as our economy continues to tank.

The particularly moving part was the reaction of this particular staffer. She seemed annoyed that his man would actually walk down the street with his family handing out papers explaining their plight and search for economic security. She publicly chastised him in front of the small crowd saying how if he had time to complain about his lack of a job then he wasn’t spending enough time finding a new one. This evolved into a debate about “the system” and why hard working men and women have so much trouble getting by in America. This brief exchange is not some allegory about Black-brown relations in America or anything that symbolic but it did put the entire weekend into perspective for me. In this time of economic and social need it’s important that we remember not to judge the state or nature that many women find themselves in. To spend the day in panel after panel discussing what can be done to help those communities hardest hit by the recession, and then see men and women shy away from or criticize those suffering from the very conditions we were discussing is not going to change anything to the positive. My hope is that Oscar and his family find help soon, because at least for one night, he didn’t find an empathetic ear at the Congressional Black Caucus.

(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)

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