Homelessness is a dehumanizing experience that can be fostered by a failure of those who the homeless are invisible to or are merely seen as a weak element of society who don’t deserve our concerns for them.
As I wake up during the middle of the night, which is my routine, even after taking a prescription sleeping pill, I can hear the winds and the freezing rain blowing against this house. The forecast for this first day of February is a chilling one as an upper level storm system pushes into North Texas on its way toward the east coast to dump yet more snow there than many have seen in their lifetimes. Eventually this arctic front will impact some 33 states leaving ice sheets and layers of snow that will threaten many with icy roads and loss of power.
I feel comfortable and safe in my home and am glad that unlike millions of others I have the means to pay my utility bill that allows me to bump up the thermostat when needed to keep the chill at bay. But that comfort is soon disturbed when I think that there are people who for reasons beyond their control find themselves homeless and will be forced to find shelters from this bitter weather, if they’re lucky, from those agencies who accommodate this population in their hour, days and weeks of need.
These economic hard times have seen many lose their homes to foreclosures and many of those have lost their jobs with little prospect of finding another. What brings people to this plight may or may not be of their own doing but I’m sure we can say with confidence that none of them woke up one morning looking forward to a life where home was under a bridge and the next meal was what was available in the dumpster behind a restaurant or food store.
Yet there are those in society who view these people as the social wretch of our time and who justify their reluctance to provide federal assistance in the form of unemployment benefits and food stamps as a way of perpetuating a dependency by people who simply won’t try to take care of their own needs. It’s easy to take this apparent inhumane approach if the homeless people in our communities are invisible to us. That was partly the way it was for me until one night in December years back.
Back in the early 1990’s I ran across the homeless man whose shelter on a cold night similar to one outside my window this morning was a large box that a refrigerator had been shipped in. The irony of a refrigerator box being a source of some warmth to this man didn’t dawn on me until later. I was out scavenging for big boxes to use in our Church’s annual toy store for the local indigent families, needed to store donated toys in and divide them by age group and gender. The place that was most likely to have what I needed was behind McNeil’s Appliance store off of the town square where they deposited their empty boxes from recent shipments before they were hauled off to the re-cycling facility.
There were several smaller ones there that night that oven and stoves had been shipped in but my eye was on the bigger box that would serve as two storage bins once it was cut in two, There was an air of discomfort as I went to retrieve the big box, feeling I was not alone. The lone street light 15 yards away barely lit up the area of the shipping dock where all the boxes lay so it was difficult to make out details.
My jitters were soon confirmed as I reached to pull the box toward me and felt it was weighted down. Inside was a homeless man wrapped in a blanket that I was sure he had found or been given by some charitable individual. I could also tell that he was fully clothed with gloves, cap and a heavy coat. He stirred as I pulled at his dwelling and grumbled something that indicated this one wasn’t available to me. Startled, I quickly backed off, apologized to him, and left with what boxes I had already loaded into my pick-up truck.
As I drove away I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps I should have offered him some money for a meal but that thought was balanced with the ones that a), I too was often strapped during that time for cash and didn’t have any significant amount on me to give him and b), what if he was of a mind to take more than what meager offering I may have had? This rationalization helped eased my guilt feelings about not offering aid yet it dawned on me too that the real tragedy here is another human being has to live in such conditions as a stray animal would.
The chilling rain is now freezing outside as I write this and coming down harder. And somewhere there is another homeless human being trying to fend off this weather in some cardboard shelter in an out-of-the-way spot. Some of these people are the victims of a drug addiction or a lack of skills to hold down a job. But too many are men, women and children who we would recognize at another time as average family members in our grocery stores, malls and churches; working people who had lives of promise, just like our own. They were part of families that raised kids who played sports and participated in band, school choirs and drama classes. But now they were part of the growing homeless population who had been victimized by a recession whose reach had taken their homes, their jobs and their dignity.
They find some kind of relief from charitable organizations that offer shelter, food and clothing but as their numbers swell these life lines are being stretched thin. Food pantries and relief aid organizations like the Salvation Army are strapped for funds as those who still have jobs do so barely and with wages that haven’t seen a cost of living increase in several years. Many are on the threshold themselves of becoming homeless.
The data is vast and varied but somewhere between 2.3 million to 3.5 million Americans “do not have a place that they can call home, to sleep in the night”. According to the Homelessness in America website “The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates the annual homelessness in America to be approximately 3.5 million people, of which 1.35 million are children. Among the homeless population, the number of homeless families with children is the fastest growing section. In a survey conducted among 23 cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2007, it was found that 23% of the homeless population was families with children.”
Estimates in 2007 surely pale in comparison to today’s figures that followed the great recession beginning in 2008. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be living in this manner and what little I can do by donating some time and money to those great organizations that deal with this everyday seems insignificant.
This reality confronts me routinely as does the fact that “but for the grace of God go I”, and yet I am surrounded by many who feel no compulsion to alleviate this plight outside of hoping that the churches and local agencies who survive in part on a dwindling sources of private donations will be able to handle it all. The need is as great as it has ever been and yet private organizations are fraught with scarcities and overcome by the sheer numbers of newer homeless people and families.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration has set a goal to end homelessness in 2020 much through the efforts of local volunteers providing information on the homeless populations in their areas to provide strategies on eliminating this tragic situation. There is much more we each can do to ameliorate this on the local level but it will require the necessary resources of the U.S. Treasury to fund them and sustain them.
According to a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness in US Cities, “increasing demand and decreasing resources, particularly relating to federal and state budget problems, were cited most frequently by the cities as the biggest challenge to addressing hunger in their areas in the coming years.”
This flies in the face of many who think the government already extends itself too much and adds to our national debt but it’s a mindset that ignores the damage that poverty and its adjunct, homelessness, actually creates for our economy. The burden for city and state social services to accommodate their homeless populations takes funding away from other needed areas of education and job creation. To ignore it altogether would only create a demand for our dwindling police forces to deal with the negative aspects of homeless people in our neighborhoods and the business communities. They can’t always remain invisible as their numbers swell and are victims who we once had a relationship with.
We have struggled with the effects of poverty for centuries and are often found to be up against a wall in alleviating a condition that is a direct result of our economic and sometimes social structures. I think about the new testament scripture where, when at the house of Simon at Bethany (Mar 14:7) Jesus told the apostles who were over wrought about a woman who was apparently wasting a costly ointment as she poured it over his head as a blessing, he admonished them by saying that “you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good”.
This acknowledgment brings home a point that is at first depressing, realizing that we may always have the poor with us. But then we’re assured that we can overcome it “whenever you wish”. It is this “whenever you wish” that we seem to get stuck on and find ourselves living with this human loss because we choose to ignore them.
I walked away from that homeless man many years ago and realized that the problem is bigger and more than one person can overcome. It allowed me to put it behind me then because I had what I felt was a legitimate reason too; I had to make sure my own family’s needs were met. But lost in that view was the reality that if each and everyone one of us acted on a desire to eliminate homelessness, in some small way in the next ten years, then what was to prevent it from happening.
Only those who the homeless are invisible to and persist in not making those small sacrifices that allow us to work as a people stand in the way of this objective. There are those who believe that many of the homeless are there as a result of their own failures. When this apathetic notion is combined with a refusal to acknowledge a need to lift some 3.5 million people off of the streets rather than insisting that an “invisible hand of the free market” will magically right all wrongs, homelessness and its correlations of poverty and joblessness will in deed be with us always.
Free market principles have their limits as all ideological efforts do. Eliminating poverty and homelessness is going to require a combined effort of social and free market forces steadily working together to get to a point where those living on the streets and sleeping in boxes are no longer invisible to us.