First World Problems

by Michelle Farley

Women's First World Problem. They have so many to choose from, it's such a hard decision!. I MINT Maille WWW WERE WITH THIS DRESS.

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“That is such a First World problem.”

I’ve heard this phrase many times, but applying it recently to some personal circumstances made me stop and think about First World problems vs. Third World problems and how the statement relates to homelessness in our area.

When people say, “that is such a First World problem,” they are usually being dismissive of whatever the expressed (some might say trivial, or whiney) concern might be: like breaking a fingernail immediately after completion of an expensive manicure; being served a super healthy salad with far too many blueberries; or not being able to make a decision about which of your many shoes look best with your new outfit.  Some people do allow these events to cast a slight shadow on a perfectly great sunny day, but can these “First World problems” truly compare to the potential Third World problems of death from starvation or from an easily treatable disease?  Even though the United States is considered a First World country, I would suggest that some aspects of homelessness in our area have distinct comparisons to Third World conditions.

Manicures are generally considered a First World issue. Most of the people reading this can visit a salon (or a talented friend) and pay money to have his/her fingernails massaged, buffed, filed (amazing how much time people will spend trying to decide on a round nail vs. a square nail) and painted a pretty color (Brad Pitt was recently photographed with nails painted dark blue). Even if a manicure is not for you, you have that access if you change your mind.  Pretty nails are probably not tops on the list of a homeless person’s list of “Things I Need Today to Survive Tonight.” People living on the streets can’t always wash their hands regularly (because there are so few public restrooms), so that pesky hangnail that your manicurist would quickly snip can become a major health concern if located on the hand of a homeless person. A hangnail becomes an infected finger, which becomes a staph infection, which may turn into extended hospitalization – a hospitalization for which there may be no insurance coverage (not to mention there’s no respite care to aid recovery and there’s a history of homeless clients having difficulty accessing health care in Birmingham). The next time you have a manicure (or any personal service for that matter), think about someone on the street with no ability to wash dirty hands.

Food choice in many instances is a First World issue. Most of the people reading this blog can request a restaurant to prepare a salad a special way, and can send it back if it is not correct. Most readers of this blog can go home and prepare that salad in any manner they choose. Most readers can choose to skip the salad entirely and go directly to dessert! If you live on the streets, your food choice may be limited to what you can purchase at the over-priced convenience store on the corner or what is handed out in the park (but please remember the can’t- wash- your-hands scenario from above, and read another blog post on the matter of public feeding here).  I’m also almost 100% certain those choices will not include either salad or blueberries.

If you are in a homeless shelter, you probably have to either eat what the volunteers bring, or you don’t eat. Some people would argue that a person who is hungry will eat what is given, and that is certainly true in most cases. However, what if you have religious reasons to eat only certain foods? What if you have food allergies or a medically restricted diet? What if five groups of volunteers brought the exact same meals five days in a row (yes, that happens)? The next time you get to make a First World food choice, especially if that choice includes fresh fruits and vegetables, think about our homeless citizens who have no choice.

Choosing from a vast array of shoes is certainly a First World problem, but one our homeless community does not experience. There are kind people in our community who donate gently used shoes to our homeless service providers. However, people who are homeless generally walk a lot – and the more you walk, the more important it is for your shoes to fit. What if you have very narrow feet? What if you wear a very large or a very small size?  I can tell you that well-fitting shoes in good condition are very difficult to come by in most of our homeless agencies. New shoes are seldom donated, most donated shoes are “average” sizes, and most donated shoes have already been molded to fit the previous owner’s feet.

The next time you have the opportunity to make a First-World choice about what pair of shoes to wear, think about those people who didn’t even get to choose the single, worn-out, uncomfortable pair they are wearing right now.

This blog is not meant to make you feel guilty about having a manicure or about owning a closet full of shoes. This is simply meant to offer information about the realities faced by the 1,329 people who are homeless in our area tonight. This blog is meant to point you to the One Roof website if you are interested in solutions to ending homelessness.  The work that One Roof does to end homelessness in central Alabama is based on answering the needs we know exist in our community, and understanding where there are gaps in services; it means researching the best ways to make sure that men, women, and children in Alabama have a safe place to sleep at night; and it means that one of the most effective ways that you can end homelessness in Alabama is by supporting One Roof and our member agencies.  You can end homelessness by supporting agencies who coordinate their efforts to fill the existing need, and who know what’s needed or missing in our community.

Making a donation to One Roof before the end of this year is tax-deductible, and it’s a smart step in the right direction for ending homelessness (and “third world” conditions) in the community we share.  This blog is meant to offer you a way to get involved in ending homelessness in our community.  Contact us!  It is a First World choice whether you use snail mail, a land line, your cell phone, Twitter or Facebook.  But no matter which method you choose, we hope to hear from you soon.


Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof. 

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