At a Fourth of July potluck, we asked a neighbor who commutes to California for work how he was doing. Instead of small talk, we got a tirade about how he was working to support all those jobless loafers living on government handouts. A grandmother sitting with us pointed out, gently, that we're paying for two wars that weren't in the budget.

Since that conversation, the news has brought us the faces of Central American children seeking safety within our borders and the bludgeoning death of two homeless men in Albuquerque. Which makes me wonder, whatever happened to compassion? The answer is, it's still alive, but it's being tested.

This neighbor is in California because he lost his manufacturing job and was out of work for months before finding another job. Fortunately, his wife was still working, so they didn't lose everything. Lots of people have relocated and made sacrifices to get work. They can look at it two ways: If I can find work, the rest of you shiftless people can find work. Or, hey, it's really tough out there, and people could use a hand.

Last week, on public television's "Frontline," the documentary "Poor Kids" introduced three families tossed out of their middle-class cocoon by the recession. Displaced and living day to day, the kids missed their friends, their pets, their schools, the houses they once lived in. Their parents struggled to find work and stretch too little money over too many bills.

We don't need to watch poor people on TV, you might say, when we can see them daily in our communities. You would be surprised, however, at how many Americans have no clue what it's like to get kicked out because they can't pay the rent, what it's like to not have enough food, what it's like to retrain for another job and wonder if there will be a job. And these are people with no bad habits, just bad breaks.

So we look at these Central American kids and moms with mixed feelings. We'd like to help them, but we're not even doing a good job of taking care of our own.

Here in New Mexico, we have two different responses.

The Diocese of Las Cruces persuaded immigration authorities to turn over moms and kids and created temporary quarters where volunteers help them locate and rejoin relatives who can then shelter them until their immigration hearings. The shelter receives a busload of refugees almost daily and provides food, clothing, medical attention and showers. The average stay is two days.

The detention facility in Artesia at this writing was housing about 400 women and children in the barracks of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. It's providing food, shelter and medical care — and shipping them home to the violence that sent them here. Last week the American Immigration Lawyers Association chided the feds for crowded, inhumane conditions in Artesia and called for a moratorium on deportations because of violations of due process.

The compassionate solution in Las Cruces is cheaper.

For the people who've fallen off the economic merry-go-round altogether, the homeless, compassion is thinner than a bus pass. Blame liquor, drugs, mental illness and sometimes plain bad luck. The Navajo Nation wants to know if violence toward Native homeless people is racial. Homeless people are often roughed up, sometimes by each other, but people who study such subjects say that hard times can exacerbate racial tensions. (Hitler successfully blamed Jews for a bad economy.)

Compassion calls for treatment, housing, and programs — the very things my neighbor would hate supporting. Nobody ever said that being our brother's keeper was easy.

 

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico journalist who began her career in 1976 and has served as assistant business editor and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, editor of New Mexico Business Weekly and business editor of the Albuquerque Tribune.