(published by forwardingseeking.com, 2/26/12)
Let me state the obvious: Pretending a problem doesn’t exist doesn’t stop the problem; it only delays dealing with it. Yet there is something in us, or at least some of us, that causes us to look the other way, to prefer ignorance to knowledge, and to dwell in a Pollyanna world where everything is coming up roses and there are no weeds. And maybe that’s okay for a while, but eventually the weeds will choke off the flowers if they are ignored.
The other day there was an article on Madison.com about a day shelter for homeless people where they can get out of the weather, enjoy some coffee and company, and feel somewhat secure. The thrust of the article was that some of the neighbors weren’t happy with the shelter being located in their neighborhood. The article noted there had been many more police visits to the neighborhood for public intoxication, public urination, and the like, but it also seemed like the majority of the people using the shelter were just looking for a place to be and were not causing any disruption in the neighborhood, unless one counts the additional foot traffic as a disruption. Some of the neighbors didn’t seem to have a problem with the shelter, but several of the people quoted were clearly unhappy to have it so close to them. Instead of using the discomfort to examine the underlying issues of poverty and homelessness, these neighbors just wanted to shuffle the problem off to another neighborhood where they wouldn’t have to deal with it. It was a classic example of the “not in my back yard” syndrome. Don’t solve the problem, or even begin to discuss solutions; just shift it elsewhere. Yes, we should have nuclear power—just don’t put the reactor anywhere near my town. Yes, mining is important—but please do it in the next county. Yes, homeless people need to get out of the winter wind—but not in my neighborhood; they’re scary
If you don’t have to confront the problem head-on then you can glide by in your life, blissfully unaware that there are homeless people all over the city. Put them somewhere where we don’t have to look at them. Create panhandling and loitering laws that allow the police to keep them off of Main Street, U. S. A. That way they’ll stay in places where people can’t see them and nobody but the homeless themselves will have to deal with the reality. They will be out of sight. Though they may no longer be on Main Street, they will be on other streets, under bridges, and in parks. But at least they won’t destroy the look of the beautiful cityscape and the human garden we have created.
The thing is, homeless people are not the weeds in the garden. They are simply flowers unable to bloom. They need to be tended and nourished.
According to The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a report published on January 17 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are an estimated 672 homeless people in my city of Madison, Wisconsin, a northern city where it can be incredibly difficult to be homeless due to the cruelty of winter, wetness of spring, and the hot and humid summers. The number for Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee, is 1,466. In 2011 there were an estimated 636,017 homeless individuals nationwide. Shockingly, almost four in ten of those were unsheltered and living on streets, in cars, alleyways, abandoned buildings, and elsewhere. In some cities there are tent villages and cardboard cities in places where no one else ever goes. Most of America’s homeless are invisible to commuters, office workers, shoppers, and others going about their day-to-day business. I have stumbled across tents and fire pits deep in the woods and underbrush of public parks here in Dane County that were clearly living spaces, not temporary encampments. Most people would never know they were there.
Almost every day I am confronted with the reality of Madison’s homeless when I see a group of men gathering on the Capitol Square across from Grace Episcopal Church. They start gathering around 4:30 and by 5:00 there are generally three or four dozen of them there. The moment it hits 5:00 the whole group crosses the street en masse, as fast as they can, to get to the church, which opens its doors at 5:00 for those seeking shelter. Fortunately there are a number of places like this in Madison, some for men, some for women, some which are mixed, and some that take in entire families. Whenever I see these men just waiting for the minute hand to arrive at 5:00 I start to tear up as I look at the Capitol building behind them and fancy office buildings all around the Capitol Square. I understand that in this country it is not that we don’t have the wealth to feed, clothe, and house them, but that the wealth is so concentrated it doesn’t trickle down to those truly in need.
There are those in this country who believe that homeless people should not get handouts, that they need to pull themselves up out of their situation and rise up to the American dream, that somehow it is their fault that they are in that situation and that if they were just willing to work harder everything would be okay. These are often people who have gotten handouts from parents or come from some kind of privilege themselves. There are also people who believe that the homeless all choose to be homeless, that they are making a good living without having to work for it by panhandling, and that they all just have convenient hard luck stories to explain away their plight. Of course they have hard luck stories. They’re living on the streets. They should have hard luck stories. And no, they don’t get rich from panhandling, although even if they did it wouldn’t be because it was easy–standing on the street in all kinds of weather begging for change is not a job most of us would want.
Some of the homesless have mental issues that prevent them from working. Others couldn’t control alcohol or drug issues. Still others lost jobs and homes due to the economy. The likelihood of finding even one who would prefer to live homeless than to have a warm and comfortable bed of their own is pretty slim. And there are many, many of us in this economy at this time in our history who are merely a paycheck or two away from joining that crowd waiting for the shelter to open at 5:00.
I wish that I had a solution for this. I wish that someone did. But it’s not that easy. There are countless people who, through no fault of their own, have lost their homes or apartments. If we could just take a small portion of our current military budget and put it toward this we could eliminate the problem of homelessness in this country. Every city has more than enough empty buildings that all of the homeless in the city could be housed. We need to find ways to move toward an end to homelessness in this, one of the richest countries in the world. We can’t turn our eyes from those men and women on the street any longer. We have to see them. We have to understand their plight. And then we have to begin to talk about what we can do.
This is a link to the homelessness report noted above: http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/4361
The response of neighbors around the Day Shelter reminds me of the 2007 backlash against people who were homeless and gathering at Brittingham Park. When two murders happened in the spring of that year many in the neighborhood and in the larger community were quick to blame the murders on someone, anyone who was homeless. People were gathered up and questioned for no reason other than they were homeless, we became the national model of hypocracy, liberal Madison wants to run the homeless out of town. Nothing has changed except now we know that one of the murders was committed by a UW student who had a persistent and significant mental illness that was not adequately recognized or treated, but he was not homeless. The other murder has never been solved. Shelters are charity, which is fine and necessary but they are not a solution to homelessness, significant change in our attitudes and policies regarding housing and economic justice are the solutions long term. Thank you for your article, as I prepare to speak tonight at an Ash Wednesday service about our brokeness this is a validation of what I am going to be saying.
Thank you, Callen. Nice piece. In terms of capturing our Zeitgeist and the tenor of the surrounding (and alas, disintegrating) society vividly and fairly, I think of you as a seer, a beacon, creating at such a rate, both verbally and photographically, it really one’s breath away…