We need to start seeing the ‘invisible people’

I see invisible people.

It’s not a superpower, but it does take a conscious effort. I have frequently been an invisible person myself. 

I worked as a part-time church custodian when I was in high school. When only the church secretary was around, I scrubbed toilets, vacuumed the sanctuary, and polished the tile floors. Nobody noticed the clean; dirty would elicit complaints.

For a time at my office job, I was the purchasing manager. In a small company, it was a job that was shunted off onto new employees. Frequently, my coworkers would leave empty boxes or containers on my desk as their way of alerting me that they were out of some office supply. It was a thankless job. But when the office runs out of toilet paper, toner cartridges, or pens, the invisible person in charge of ordering supplies will quickly become visible.

While most of us sleep, invisible people are working. Food deliveries are being made to restaurants. Trash trucks rumble around cities emptying dumpsters. Commercial truck drivers make long treks delivering products that consumers devour. Hospital personnel work the overnight shifts. First responders are always on call, whether they are called or not.

During the day, maids clean hotel rooms for current guests and prepare rooms for new arrivals. Cooks and dishwashers work in the kitchens of restaurants and school cafeterias. Millions of office workers toil in anonymity, accomplishing important and vital work.

There are undocumented immigrants and even children working, including in the United States, in dangerous factory jobs. 

Has anyone ever thanked an air traffic controller after disembarking from a flight?

In the evening, after the office workers clear their cubicles and classrooms, custodians clean offices and school buildings. 

All the sporting events, concerts, and conventions we attend, depend on the behind-the-scenes work of invisible people. If the event is successful, the stars take the credit. If things don’t go well, the blame is likely to be passed to somebody we’ve never set eyes on or heard of.

In other words, nothing important or worthwhile is accomplished without planning and hard work, much of it accomplished by invisible people.

The people of Ukraine (war) and the Horn of Africa (drought) were invisible to me until about a year ago when I started getting my news from the BBC.

Why are there so many invisible people in our world? The short answer is economics. For the most part, the people who do the dirty, back-breaking work that keeps businesses in business are poorly compensated. Just look at the pay of the people who manufacture most of the world’s goods. Ask a migrant worker about wages and living conditions.

In the United States, money has been declared synonymous to free speech by our black-robed, lifetime-appointed, unelected Supremes. Poor people aren’t on the court’s docket.

There’s been a lot made of the “great resignation” since Covid-19 shut down the world. Millions of people haven’t returned to the job market. Many of them, I surmise, are tired of working for salaries that don’t pay a living wage. 

South Bend’s leaders appear to be abandoning the Motels4Now program, which got dozens of  unhoused people into semi-permanent housing in motels for the past two years. Admittedly, there have been problems with some of the participants. But putting them all back on the streets is short-sighted without better options in place.

There are people in our community who don’t want to see the unhoused at all. Their NIMBY (not in my back yard) instincts kick in. If the less fortunate aren’t visible to them, it’s easier not to think about them. They see the homeless as sub-humans. Where is the empathy?

Some of our local elected officials want the residents of Portage Manor on the northwest side of South Bend to be even more invisible than they already are. The majority of the St. Joseph County Commissioners have determined housing the 105 current residents in Portage Manor is too expensive. They want them shuttled elsewhere, to become some other jurisdiction’s burden. That won’t fix the problems of the current Portage Manor residents. It just takes the financial responsibility off of St. Joseph County’s books.

Our world is full of invisible people. We cannot continue to ignore them. We need to develop the compassion to acknowledge them and dedicate the financial resources to help them. How do we accomplish that? First we must make the effort to see them.