“Where are they sleeping since they were evicted? On the street?”
“No. They are in the anarchy block. That is why they do not want the teenage girl to stay with them. It is too dangerous. Something bad will happen to her. The mother says she can keep the baby and three year old safe, but not the girl.”
Anarchy block is a term that one of my colleagues uses to describe only the worst places he can imagine. Concentrated pockets of drug use, homelessness, malnutrition, abuse, desperation. The sort of things people imagine when they hear the word slum.
I used to live in an area that was known as a slum. The reality of the area was quite different to common perceptions of the place. There was poverty, there were houses that didn’t have running water, there was drug use and domestic violence. But there was also community. There was a thriving economy. It was home. Until the evictions. These days I am hesitant to call any area a slum because of the negative implications is conjures up, although I have been guilty of throwing the term around in the past. But I digress…
In this case the anarchy block was an abandoned four-story guesthouse that formerly housed numerous rooms rented out by the hour. From the outside it appeared empty. Every item of value had been removed from the premises. The toilets and plumbing fittings, the copper stripped from the electrical wiring, the windows, the doors, the banisters that once kept the stairwell relatively safe – all gone and sold as scrap. The building was littered with rubbish. Plastic bags, used condoms, fish bones, smashed concrete, broken glass, burnt foil. The bitter smell of human waste was overwhelming and grew worse as we ascended the stairs.
I was shown to a room on the third floor with a filthy blanket hanging where a door used to be. Surprisingly, behind the blanket, the floor was dirt free. A mattress lay on the floor and a woman was sound asleep, oblivious to our presence. In sheer contrast, the room that was previously a bathroom was littered with rubbish. I asked where people go to the toilet and was told that they all go outside to the vacant block next door during the day. I was shown to several rooms down the hall where the stench indicated that this was the general area where people relieved themselves overnight (yes, it is the next photo.) Unless armed with a torch, the stairwell is a deathtrap. A wide sheer drop to the ground floor, unfettered by a barrier, combined with a thick layer of dust over slippery, smooth stone tiles made it risky to climb even in daylight, as I had experienced on the way up.
The thing that I found most confronting about visiting this Anarchy Block was not the men openly smoking methamphetamine in the hallways, or the presence of human feces, nor the higher than expected numbers of occupants inside. It was the complete lack of reaction to danger or repulsion of the three year old girl whose mother we were there to visit. She witnessed the men smoking meth from tin foil and didn’t bat an eyelid. She stepped over the piles of shit with precision, as though it was completely expected that it should be on the floor where it lay. She didn’t complain about the putrid smell. In fact, she was happy. And I hope that I always find that acceptance of an awful situation confronting.
I see people buying ice creams for the street kids in the touristy parts of this city because they feel sad that these kids go without. Without clean clothes, without toys… I see this as a case of want versus needs. Children want toys and ice cream. As they should. But what they need is a home that isn’t littered with human waste, which has access to water; they should have numerous meals every day, access to education and medical care. I worry that the perception is wrong. That even well-intentioned people really don’t understand how bad the bad really is. And the deliciousness of passion fruit sorbet just might make the filth that they climb through every day that little bit harder to bear.
I am relieved that the three year old wasn’t horrified about spending those few nights in Anarchy Block, that she was oblivious to her situation. And I am happy that her family will never spend another minute there. I am happy that she will learn that poo should be flushed away never to be seen again – not left to linger with its unseen bacterial occupants on board. I am happy that she will learn that not all grown-ups smoke meth. That her tummy won’t hurt all the time if she eats several times a day. And that she will get to know her “slum” rather than the “Anarchy Block” as her community. A place where bad things happen, but so do good things, just like all neighborhoods. I am looking forward to working with her mother, who loves her children very much, as she takes the steps toward financial stability for her family. Because family should be together. And no-one will ever love that little girl as much as her mum does. But most of all, I am glad that her big sister will never learn exactly what it was that her mother was trying to protect her from in the Anarchy Block.
So in the spirit of this blog:
The joy – tomorrow is another day and for this family it will not be spent living in the Anarchy Block.
The funny – it took a larger than expected amount of soapy rinsing to get the smell of poo detached from my nasal follicles. And soap up your nose is pretty funny. Or at least it is after it is no longer up your nose.
The ridiculous – A few months ago I gave up a bunch of my old t-shirts that I had held onto for too long because I loved them too much, despite the fact that the outline of my belly button could clearly be seen by those who cared to look. One of them was an Eazy E t-shirt that said “Eazy duz it” on the front and “Compton” on the back. The teenage daughter in this family is the proud new owner of my beloved shirt and she just happened to be wearing it during our visit to the block. I kinda loved that more than I can say.