It is difficult to write passionately about a cause, regardless of how much it might mean to you, when you cannot honestly write about it in the first person.
I have written dozens of posts about unemployment, railing about the stupidity of Congress and the plight of those who have been economically sidelined and will likely never work again. But I did this while on my own gut-wrenching, year-long odyssey of job hunting after being laid off from the state court system. I was able to give my readers the down low about nearly collapsing after standing in line in the sun for three hours to obtain USDA surplus canned goods, about telling my life story to the Salvation Army lady, about the indignity of applying for Food Stamps.
The same is true of my experiences in going vegan. I couldn’t reasonably expect anyone to put stock in a thing I said about the virtues of veganism if I hadn’t committed to it personally. I didn’t do this all at once; I played with the idea for bit before realizing that it is the only ethical food choice in today’s world. Yes, being a vegan can be a big fat pain in the ass when you are the oddball among carnivores, but at least I can tell you all about it firsthand.
When it comes to homelessness, however, things are a bit different. I have never been homeless myself, although I’ve come close a couple of times. I’ve had to rely on family for a roof over my head on more than one occasion, and I can see why some find living on the street preferable. I can empathize, to some extent, with a friend in Georgia who spent some months sleeping behind a bush in a downtown business district because she was flat broke and it was the only way she could leave her abusive boyfriend. She can speak about homelessness with a conviction that I cannot. No matter how many stories I relate about the desperate of Sacramento, it’s necessarily a second hand story.
There are a lot of us who are perennially a paycheck or two away from homelessness and who would rather not talk about it out loud for fear of waking up to find that the nightmare has become real. But there are others who own a home and a car, have no mortgage and have sufficient savings to get by on for virtually as long as necessary. More than a few of these individuals are in Congress and in the state legislature. It is difficult to convince someone of the dire necessity to do something about homelessness when they themselves are highly unlikely to ever find themselves living on the streets.
Those folks may tell you that they earned everything they have, that they got to where they’re at by dint of hard work and good decisions. While some have succeeded by drawing themselves up out of poverty, many more at the top of the economic heap arrived there largely by having chosen their parents well. Would that we all could have been such smart babies.
Fortunately, a desire to alleviate a particular type of suffering does not require that we experience that suffering personally. So what can anyone of us really do to help the homeless? Surely we’re not going to risk bringing them into our own homes?
To those of the Christian faith, I say WWJD.
But I am also aware of the realities of the world in which we live. I’ve been hearing stories about a good Samaritan who stopped to help a homeless man a few weeks ago, just a couple of miles from here. I am told she was murdered, her throat slit by the person she hoped to help.
So I get it when we drive by the guy with the sign, keeping our eyes on the road. I get it when we walk by the panhandler, keeping our heads down and being careful not to make eye contact. Perhaps we are disgusted with the situation and know that we can never hope to do enough personally to make a significant difference. Perhaps we are ashamed that we lack the courage to make the first move. Perhaps we believe that “these people” have done this to themselves and are responsible for their own bad decisions. They made their bed, now they have to lie in it. Or perhaps we just fear for our personal safety when we have no idea whether this “beggar” may be crazy and violent.
For years, I’ve read about how Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the White House, is a veritable drug supermarket and a haven for crack addicts. While I am aware of the drug problem in our nation’s capital, it wasn’t until this week that I learned the extent of the homelessness situation there. The Washington Post recently reported that the city’s metropolitan area has 11,623 homeless people crouching over heating grates, staying in dangerous overnight shelters, sleeping in little encampments under bridges. This figure was arrived at as the result of a PIT (point in time) count conducted on the night of January 28, during the coldest part of Washington’s winter. I don’t know about you, but at least to me, eleven thousand seems an awfully large number of people to be shivering in the cold without roofs over their heads. And in some other parts of the country (and the world), it’s even worse.
The highest rates of homelessness in the United States are in Florida and right here in California. The Sunshine and Golden States are the only two states of the Union to have the distinction of hosting a homeless population exceeding 6% of all residents. Perhaps some of this has to do with California’s sheer size; after all, nearly one in ten Americans live here. Then there is the reality that, at least in the southern portions of Florida and California, the weather is warm enough year-round that one who is forced to live al fresco has a fairly good chance of not freezing to death the week before Christmas. Out here, the stories are legion about folks who arrive here by bus, thinking they’ll manage to survive on the beach in San Diego. As if we didn’t have enough homegrown homelessness. Really, who can afford to live in San Diego? Or Los Angeles? Or San Francisco?
There is no need for despair, however. There is hope.
Thanks to a program (or a philosophy, depending on one’s viewpoint) known as Housing First, the state of Utah has succeeded in virtually eliminating homelessness. The secret of Utah’s success is right there in the program’s name. Housing first, then worry about things like drug rehab, mental health assistance, job training. Utah started by taking the most intractable, most seemingly hopeless cases off the streets of Salt Lake City by handing them the keys to an apartment, a house or a single room occupancy community residence. The SROs were for those who needed health and welfare checks on a nearly daily basis, with services available right in the same building. Some of those who were newly homed had been on the streets for twenty years or more. All of them were offered, but not forced to accept, free counseling, health care, job training and food.
The idea is that it is next to impossible to succeed at something as hard as kicking drugs, getting one’s mental illness under control or finding a job when you don’t have a stable address, a reliable place to take a shower or the assurance that you have a bed in which to get a good night’s sleep. Utah removed the morality from the situation. Instead of sitting in judgment upon the homeless and their poor choices, they simply gave them keys.
In other words, the way to end homelessness is to give people homes.
And to give people hope.
I encourage you to check out the link above and read about how Utah managed to achieve such an accomplishment. It wasn’t easy. It took a consortium of public and private resources. It took building new apartments when the available housing stock was depleted. And it didn’t happen by itself. It took commitment, those in power saying “yes, we’re going to do this.”
It wasn’t done by taking neighborhood homeless people into our own homes; it was done by giving them their own homes. It wasn’t done by buying fast food for hungry people holding signs at Wal-Mart or the McDonald’s drive-through. It wasn’t done by means of token shows of caring. It was done by collective will.
I feel confident that if providing homes to the homeless worked in Utah, we can also make it work right here in California.
Anyone with me?