“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” — Dr. Martin Luther King
On January 3rd, I was passing down Smithfield on the 51 Carrick bus on my way to work when I saw the long line of people stretched down the block in the rain outside the Port Authority office. Only a few people had umbrellas. I jumped off the bus at the next stop to run back with my camera at the ready. Charles came out as I arrived outside the glass doors. He had come down to the Port Authority office to make sure that his PAAC senior pass was still good under the new fare payment system that had gone into affect on New Years Day.
“No, this change won’t affect me at all,” he told me when I asked him if the fare policy would make things harder for him – many people were having to pay the full fare twice if they had to transfer without a CONNECT card and it was often difficult to find a place to buy or recharge the card, especially if you lived out in the suburbs without easy access to a Busway fare machine or a Giant Eagle, one of the few retail outlets set up to distribute and recharge the cards. “Me, I’m 68. I just double-checked all I got to do is hold up this card just like I been doing and they’ll let me right on. Won’t matter any much longer anyway. I won’t be riding the bus at all in not too long.”
“How come? Has there been some problem riding the bus for you?”
“Oh, it’s not been too bad, but I would much rather be in my own car. I’ll be getting my own car again in not too long.”
“Were you riding the bus because you lost your car?”
Charles, who had not yet given me his name or image, was silent. Just looked at me for a long moment.
Guessing wrong, I told him how I had lost my own car a few years back when I’d had to choose between paying rent and paying a steep towing fee, how embarrassing it had been to admit the fact to friends, had avoided telling my family for years.
“No, no, that’s not it,” Charles said. “See, I’m in a rehab program and they don’t allow us to drive cars.”
“So, you mean that people who drive drunk or high and get in an accident aren’t allowed to drive?”
“No, I have a good driving record. Never got into an accident. But they just don’t allow any of us to have a car or to drive while we’re in the program. If we have any drug offense, doesn’t matter what kind of driving record, that’s just the rule. But I just spent a couple months looking for a job, just got one and it won’t be long until this rehab program is done and I’ll be able to save enough to get back behind my own wheel.”
“But wasn’t it hard to go looking for a job by bus – all those transfers?”
“Well, it was a lot of time back and forth, yes, and that made it harder, but not so hard for me as for some others that were not seniors. They did give us some bus passes, but not really enough and sometimes a lot of them in the program didn’t have the money to go out hunting from place to place for a job, so they would just have to wait out there, kicking around, like. I wanted to get back to work, bad, and I know quite a few out there that really want that, too.”
“Well, that doesn’t make any sense to make it tougher for them,” I said, wondering if it was just this particular program that had helped to create yet another barrier for people struggling to rebuild their lives.
“Well, I am feeling pretty blessed now, I gotta say. I found a job right downtown here at the Urban League. I don’t really need a job with my social security, moneywise. But there at the Urban League, I’m going to be able to help people out. That’s what I need to do now, and here the job just came open right when I needed it.”
Two days later, a New York Times article popped up in my Twitter feed: “Drug Licenses: Caught in the War on Drugs.”
Historically, people lost their licenses after being convicted of offenses like drunken or reckless driving, but they generally got them back after completing a mandatory driver’s education course. It was understood that licenses should be taken away only when drivers become dangerous, because people need them to work, care for their families and get medical care.
These reasonable considerations fell by the wayside during the war on drugs, when states adopted three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences and a host of measures that denied drug offenders all kinds of public services. Congress accelerated the trend toward lifting licenses in the 1990s, when it threatened to cut highway funding to states that did not automatically suspend the licenses of people convicted of drug offenses.
Pennsylvania is one of twelve states in the U.S. that continue to enforce laws that have been shown to directly damage people’s ability to rehabilitate their lives.
Needless suspensions impact poor communities most. Research in New Jersey found that while only 16% of the state population is low-income, 50% of the people who have their driver’s licenses suspended are low-income. More than 40% of drivers lost their jobs after the license was suspended.These suspensions create a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making employment opportunities harder to access, driver’s license suspensions produce economic instability. Altogether, a suspended driver’s license translates to less social mobility: people living in poor communities stay poor.
Charles was more than willing to use his full name. After we had finished talking, he held out his senior citizen bus pass for my camera, looking into the lens with trust, ready to document himself. And he gave me permission to report here everything he had shared with me. It’s me that can’t bring myself to post that photo, to attach his full name to his story.
“Me, I want to make a good difference for people,” he said. “You tell the story and it might help somebody else.”
I won’t post the photo with Charles’ identification card because I know the damages so often done when the word “rehab” is attached to a man or woman trying to make a new start after struggling with drug addiction. Charles is doing his best to get behind the wheel of his own life, to drive forward rather than be driven.