Homelessness is on the upswing in the United States, and the years of 2011, 2012, and 2013 each set new records in terms of the raw numbers of unsheltered children in America. While the causes and effects of homelessness are so numerous that their study is a cottage industry of social sciences in and of itself, an overriding fact of the situation is that the prioritization of this problem is terribly skewed, despite its epidemic scale.
Homeless people do not tend to generate headlines; rather, they increasingly slip through the cracks of the public conscience. There is nothing glamorous or sexy about sleeping in the streets, and nothing salacious about poverty, other than the systems that allow its unmitigated propagation. While the likely reaction to that last statement would present itself as a call to throw money at the problem, it is another fact that the record numbers of homeless children, achieved in subsequent recent years, came despite 2009 legislation passed by the Obama administration which was specifically crafted to address the problem: the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing, or HEARTH, Act. Why does it seem likely that more creativity was expended in naming that piece of legislation, than solving the problem that it was drafted in the name of?
It is relatively common knowledge that the protocol of legislative construction in Washington involves turning a proposal into a political football. Senators and Representatives compete to leverage other agendas, commonly and ironically referred to as “pork,” (ironic due to consideration of the hunger experienced by the economically disadvantaged) into draft legislation, and the bragging rights that they take back to their constituencies in an election season often feature how effective they were at carving out disproportional benefits from public funds for their territories.
Ultimately, the practice of caring for homeless people is left to the truly compassionate, the saints among us, who have little sway and little influence in politics, outside of expedient intersections manipulated to corral demographic support. They will occasionally be thrust in front of a camera and handed a microphone for 30 seconds at a time, until their soundbite is captured and they are dismissed. Meanwhile, the Political Class, resplendent in their own wealth, flash smiles and slap shoddy bandages on the problem, with little regard to the economic efficiency or actual public benefit. Many states and municipalities have taken to passing legislation which actually further persecutes the disadvantaged class of people, who already suffer a similar status to biblical pariahs.
Months prior to the current situation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where several people have been cited (it remains unclear if they were actually arrested, despite repeated use of the term in publications) for feeding the poor under the pretense of creating a threat to public hygiene, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin claims he was cited and harassed similarly, for feeding the homeless population of Santa Monica, California. While Cunin was ostensibly issued a ticket for the handicap placard hanging from his rear-view mirror (the placard was designed to hang from a rear-view mirror and issued by a government entity), the ticket itself bore the note “To Feed Homeless” in its’ “notes” section.
Atrocious behavior towards the homeless, such as the above, is sadly only the “tip of the iceberg.” Other modern
inhumanities include examples of arbitrary refusal of service for homeless people attempting to turn in cans for their redemption value, a Michael Bloomberg ban on private food donation to the homeless, bans on sitting or laying down in public spaces, bans on “camping” (of which nearly all homeless life can fit within the definition of), anti-begging laws, the placement of spikes on likely surfaces where a person could rest, extra divisions within the width of public benches, and the projection of unpleasant noise, such as construction sounds, through loudspeakers placed outside of buildings, as reported by Gina Luttrell of The Blaze. It quickly becomes obvious that more time and energy is spent in the persecution and punishment of homelessness, than in trying to solve the problem.
One of the major obstacles in the way of compassion for these people is anti-homeless prejudice. There is a common tendency among people to blame the ultimate underclass for their condition, which is a gross oversimplification, to say the least. At least one modern understanding of the epidemiology of homelessness ties the current state of affairs to 1970’s introduction of the de-institutionalization of psychiatrically ill people, which was subsequently believed to have “seeded” homelessness in urban areas prior to the recession of the 1980’s. That also likely lead to much of the prejudice towards the chronically unsheltered population of urban areas, that people largely view them as “having something wrong with them,” and being undesirable. Also, throughout the span of Western Civilization, 75 to 80 percent of homeless people are single and male, with a median age of 35 years. Many shelters are female and children exclusive, and concurrently do little to solve the broader problem.
In past times, it was much simpler for a person to construct some sort of shelter or dwelling. A time spent gathering stones or felling lumber was relatively uncomplicated beginning to having a place to live. However, since the industrial revolution and the mass migration of people towards urban centers, public utilities such as water, sewage, electricity and more created the need for organization and the codification of housing regulations. In some countries, depending on climate and local ordinance, a simple Rubbermaid shed could equate to serviceable quarters. It is in many ways ironic, that the more “civilized” a country becomes, the more difficult it congruently becomes to escape homelessness.
Solving real problems requires real work. It requires understanding root causes, and also studying the effects of proposed solutions over the medium-to-long term time frames. While there is great public concern towards the acquisition of national and local debt among conservatives, that concern can be taken in a beneficial direction. A substantive, workable and sustainable solution to epidemic and chronic homelessness needs to be constructed in a financially efficient way. Work programs are helpful in that for many who are capable of work, the act of being productive is itself a benefit to self-worth and provides a sense of purpose, while also supplying a portion of the finances necessary to keep programs running. It is a misconception that workable solutions to sociological problems necessitate great financial sacrifice. Often times, the best results can come from such simple things as providing leadership and “sweat equity” through volunteered time.
There is no reason good enough to accept that homelessness should continue its upward trend unabated. As families spend their holidays in a state of perpetual bombardment from advertisers, and with Christmas carols filling the air of the shopping centers; as plans are made to visit relatives and ugly sweaters are donned, people should find it in their hearts to face a moment of unpleasant truth and extend a modicum of compassion. No individual bears the responsibility of solving societies’ problems, but every single one has the capacity to care that they exist. May America take time this Christmas season to remember those who are homeless for the Holidays.
Opinion by Brian Whittemore
Header Photo by David Blackwell – Creativecommons Flickr License
Inset Photos Courtesy of Survival Group – Creativecommons Flickr License