More than American Greatness, we need hearts that can still break.

I want to tell you about Stephan.

Tonight, as I sit reading Trump’s budget — a budget that slashes funding for core programs that support struggling families such as Medicaid, SSDI, and food stamps; a budget that will begin, in Trump’s words, “a new chapter in American Greatness” — I am listening to and reading analysis that travels down the rutted road of meritocracy. It’s a seductive language to speak of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving;’ to turn the mirrors away from ourselves, to reflect the sun into our collective eyes. And this road wasn’t poorly paved by evil villains Trump or Ryan or McConnell alone; these ruts and potholes were made by the Clintons and neoliberal Democrats, too, as they tried to soft-ball Welfare to Work as a feminist agenda and insist that the poor should have dreams — but never dreams for ourselves; only dreams of capitalism.

But the defining injustice of poverty in America is that you are too tired to dream.

But tired or not, the debate wears on about you: are you deserving or undeserving? Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says: “If you are on food stamps and able-bodied, we need you to go to work. If you are on disability insurance and you are not truly disabled, we need you to go to work.” Nevermind that in all 50 states these programs already have work requirements, we as a culture just can’t stop fretting about how others’ spend their day. Nevermind that you can work all the hours your boss will give you, but it doesn’t mean you are off the rosters or can afford a place to stay.

As I read about ‘American Greatness,’ I think of my friend who lost her leg to diabetes and is learning to walk again. A friend who spent years and years homeless while trying to get SSDI and $16 in food stamps a month. A friend who opens her home to her family and friends when they are down on their luck, though she can barely afford her own medication. Is she deserving?

I think about my friends who have been working all winter to keep their small family in a motel room, trying to come up with $46 every night to keep a roof over the baby’s head. Friends who have to buy the more expensive single serving juice and milk for the baby because when you don’t have a fridge or a way to cook or a way to get ahead poverty bankrupts you over and over every day. Are they deserving?

I think about my friend who still sleeps in a tent in a small patch of woods downtown and has taught me all about how to use pallets and tarps and trash bags to make do. A friend who, with his long graying hair and thinning face, comes from an undiagnosed generation and a family too poor to care for him. A friend who helps me rehang my gutters and always asks how my son is doing in school every time we see each other. Is he deserving?

But mostly tonight I think about Stephan.

Stephan is strong and tall and articulate. He is pensive; he had a quiet reserve to him. He is also homeless — chronically so — and unemployed. Over the years, I have tried to get him work, but it wouldn’t stick. He seems willing to work (if not eager) but whenever I ask how a new job is working out, it isn’t. Stephan doesn’t qualify for SSDI or SSI. He doesn’t qualify for housing vouchers. He got cut off food stamps. He just lives on the streets and won’t work. I guess he is who we are all talking about. There is no good reason for Stephan to be in the situation he is in. He is undeserving.

But I think about Stephan because I think about the time i sat next to him at a play. It was Antony and Cleopatra: we watched Antony take his life dramatically, then Cleopatra take hers ecstatically. But it was when the chambermaid, Iras- the lesser character — died of heartbreak that I saw that Stephan was crying.

Years earlier, Stephan had left his job to care for his sister in her final days of ovarian cancer. He stayed by her bedside for three months — and then she died. His job would not take him back. Unemployment does not pair well with grief — and his wife left with the children. He lost the car, then the house.

“I just loved them all so much.” That is what Stephan said to me.

Stephan now sleeps under a bridge in my city because of heartbreak.

In this age of American Greatness, perhaps Stephen needs to chin up. Perhaps he needs to stand up again, get a job, become self sufficient. I just hope we become compassionate enough of a people to hold him while we help him while he heals.

Because we need Stephan. In this age of American Greatness we need Stephan more than ever. We need a man who cries at Shakespeare. We need him perhaps more than he needs us to house and feed him.

Because we as a nation need to have hearts that can still break.