Saturday, January 8, 2011

Homelessness...It's Not As Big As You Think.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention by fueling your outrage with such an inflammatory implication in the title of this posting, allow me to state for the record that homelessness is a problem, a major one in this, the most materially gifted and wealthiest country on Earth. The issue was brought to the public’s awareness a couple of weeks ago via the remarkable story of Ted Williams.
For those of you who have been off-planet during the last two weeks, Williams was the down-on-his-luck homeless man in Columbus, Ohio whose luck changed when he was approached by a local television videographer while panhandling on a freeway off-ramp. As is the case with most similar scenarios, the man carried a piece of cardboard placarded with a plea for monetary assistances from passing motorists. In Williams’ case, he advertised a unique gift; a radio-friendly “golden voice” as a special talent which set him apart from other highway beggars. The videographer’s curiosity piqued, he took out his camera, began to roll tape, and gave Williams a chance to demonstrate his radio-friendly speaking abilities on camera. The resulting encounter was posted on You Tube and became a viral sensation, having been viewed over a million times and counting.
As a result of one chance encounter, the once unknown and homeless man with the unnervingly smooth baritone radio speaking voice became an instant celebrity, having been interviewed on dozens of different television news programs, and showered with an equal number of job offers from a moved public. But as usual with sensational news stories, we tend to miss the Big Picture when we allow ourselves to be swept up in cheering for an improbable turn of fortune such as Williams’.

What about the million or so other homeless people in America—men, women, and children—who lack a special talent which could conceivably spur the same outpouring of material sympathy by the more fortunate which Ted Williams was shown…what about them? Sadly, what the Williams story illustrates is how selective our memories are, and how we like to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities of life. Every year, particularly around the holiday periods, the usual stream of doom-n-gloom we are treated to via the evening news is punctuated by the obligatory human interest news story about the less fortunate, the final lessons being how the rest of us should be thankful for what we have…and how things could always be worse for us. What such a practice does is that while human faces are put on the tragedy of homelessness in America, we become somewhat desensitized to its reality, and invariably come to accept it as a death- and taxes-like given in our society. This in turn eats away at our resolve to potentially eradicate the problem (or at least try to).
The truth of the matter is that homelessness is not as insurmountable an obstacle as me might think to combat. So, in David Letterman style, I present the 3 top ways which Americans can help confront homelessness.

3 -- Personal Responsibility. This is perhaps the most effective means to combat homelessness (and potential homelessness) in America. We Americans have a strange tendency in this country of opportunity to try to escape our harsh individual circumstances—both real and imagined—by indulging in drugs, alcohol, and other counter-productive activities…and it needs to stop. I’ve personally never quite understood the concept of going through an experience as hard as life with one’s faculties inhibited by chemically-induced attempts to numb our perceptions. Quite simply, any plan of action to change one’s negative heading in one’s life requires a clear head, and attempting to escape the only reality there is—outside of death—is the surest path to sleeping on a concrete pillow. In addition, Americans need to adopt better lifestyle habits altogether, such as dietary, having children which one cannot afford, and financial literacy. It's all tied together.

2 -- Stop Criminalizing Misfortune. It sickens me that some local municipalities take the time to legislatively criminalize activities such panhandling and begging, while not giving a second thought to how to actually combat the problem of homelessness in their cities/towns; half-heatedly treating the symptom and not the problem.
While tightening local budgets are a reality, there is very little reason why towns and cities couldn’t work with their state governments (as well as the federal government) to create a different kind of shelter…one that has a concentration of resources such as employment staffing specialists, clinical/drug counselors, and other volunteers/staff which would actually work toward the interests of the homeless (this is afterall, how federalism is supposed to work in America).
If space is a problem, the federal government could provide emergency trailers for office space, or even temporary shelter until shelter services yielded results.
What we need less of are private, religiously-inspired “shelters” which often refuse service to individuals who wont adopt their way of religious thinking.

1 -- Systemic Changes. We Americans still need to decide what level of poverty we are willing to accept…sleeping in cars or sleeping on sidewalks? Most homelessness is a symptom, not the problem itself. It is simply a manifestation of larger societal problems. Lack of education, lack of family support, poor health, and unmoral concentrations of wealth in the hands of the few (no, I’m not talking about people who work for their money. I’m talking about CEOS and other cooperate types who run companies and banks into the ground and are rewarded with golden parachutes) are representative of misplaced priorities. We pay sports figures millions of dollars a year for entertaining our children, but throw peanuts at teachers who we put in charge of teaching them to read (and for putting up with their unruliness and disrespect).
Then there are the drug laws. It only takes 1 felony drug conviction to hamper any employment opportunity, and by extension housing and bank loans.
We also need to stop demonizing any attempt to help the less fortunate from the federal government as “socialism,” and look at it from a more realistic perspective as being an investment in human capital (such as the $1.5 billion in federal resources distributed through the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program). Such politicized thinking is a chief reason why the resolve to help stem the tide of homelessness is absent among us. At the same time, we must closely monitor every cent aimed at such endeavors and ensure that spending goes to substantive local resources which yield tangible successes, and not those which only look great on paper.


  1. What about metal illness treatment, WITHOUT the red tape? A lot of homeless people have mental issues whict stop them from functioning

  2. You are right. However, when I wrote this piece, I was merely trying to concentrate on those factors which were wholly preventable and within the realm of the individual's ability to control. Mental illness IS a factor in many cases of homelessness, and needs to be addressed. No, I DO NOT think that people have a "right" to be mentally ill and a burden on both the criminal justice as well as the safety net of program entitlements. If such can be remidied, it should be.