The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘Homelessness’

ON THE HOMELESS

When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began a program to create a half-way house for runaway underage children, they looked in various Chicago neighborhoods to find a suitable structure.  This was in the mid-70’s.  Their idea was to create a safe haven where these children could find shelter and have some semblance of security.

Many of these kids had run away from abusive family environments.  Others were emotionally confused, unable to cope and chose a life away from home as an escape.  Most sold themselves for sexual favors as a way to support themselves – and others found themselves the victims of sexual predators.

As you probably know Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.  If your background is Polish or black or Italian or Irish or Hispanic, there are one or more neighborhoods where you probably live with other people who share your ethnicity.   People jealously guarded their invisible borders and did not welcome the intrusion of “outsiders”.

I happened to live in one of the most socially-liberal communities not only in Chicago but probably anywhere in the country.  Not surprisingly, when word of this project spread among my neighbors there was a huge groundswell of support that rose from them.

Well, the Church tried neighborhood after neighborhood to locate their half-way house only to meet with community resistance and rebuke.  The people of these neighborhoods simply didn’t want these outsiders living among them.  In order to establish a half-way house a change in zoning was required.  If an alderman in a particular ward opposed giving a variance, that essentially ended the matter.  And the neighborhood residents had their aldermen’s ears.

Then the Church had its Eureka moment.  Like Saul on the road to Emmaus suddenly they saw the light.  Why were they beating a dead horse when there was a very obvious solution to the problem?   They would locate their half-way house in a neighborhood where, from the inception of this project, they had received the full support of the community.  They would bring it to my neighborhood.

To paraphrase the popular song, “What a difference a neighborhood makes.”  What had been active community support when the project was to be located elsewhere, suddenly met the exact same opposition when it was proposed that it be placed within our hallowed borders.  The project never came to fruition.

The purpose of this post is not to indict “phony morality” or point fingers at anyone.  That is neither my right nor is it a responsibility I want to accept.  I’ll leave that to a higher power to make those judgments.  But recalling this episode gave me an idea which fits my goal of “thinking outside the box” as a way that we might address some of our social and economic issues.

If there is any one thing that we could say about our major cities it is that they all have their populations of people who are homeless.  Studies suggest that many of these have mental challenges and that is the reason for their situations.  But with the continuing sputtering of the economy and the burst in the housing bubble there are some who used to have a home and have found that the bank foreclosed on them.  They have entered the ranks of the people of the street.

Every analysis of the housing market suggests that we have at least a two year inventory of housing available that will have to be absorbed before housing prices stabilize.  The banks are holding increasing numbers of non-performing assets (foreclosed homes) on their books.  They would love nothing more than to be able to sell those – but there are no buyers for them.

So here’s the idea.  The government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars, trying to get the economy stimulated.  The results so far have been less than impressive.  So what if the Federal government were to purchase some of these foreclosed homes from the banks and turned them over to a non-profit agency – perhaps Catholic Charities or The Salvation Army.  These houses could become shelters for some of the millions of homeless who inhabit our cities.

The Federal government would own the properties – but the ones they purchased would reduce our existing inventory of unsold homes, hastening the recovery in the housing market.  The agency or agencies which had charge of these properties would require that all people who accepted residence there exchange their services for the roof over their head.  Is this a mere pipedream – or might there be some merit to it?

Yesterday I was out and  happened to see a man at an intersection.  He was holding a cardboard sign which asked those who passed by to help him with a donation.  I pulled into the gas station which was behind where he stood, got out of the car and walked over to him.  I asked if he would spare a few minutes of his time.  He seemed eager to talk with me.

I explained that I had an idea for helping people who were homeless and asked him if he were indeed one of those.  He said that he was.  So I asked if , rather than living on the street, he would be willing to live in a house with a number of other men and in exchange for housing do some kind of work for which he was qualified.

The man’s eyes lit up and he said that he was a “handyman” and could fix just about anything.  In fact he had supported himself that way for many years but when the housing market turned down, people either put off doing repairs or learned to do them themselves.  That’s when his slide into homelessness began.  He had been on the streets now for almost two years.

Obviously, this is just the beginning of an idea that is not  yet even at the talking stages among those who could make it happen.  I felt sad if I had given this man, Andy a sense of false hope.  I thanked him for speaking with me, gave him some money and left him on his corner.

If this idea ever gains traction I am going to recommend that Andy be allowed to participate in the program.  I know where he works.

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ON CONFUSION

After more than enough years of formal education and a lot more pursued through my own independent study, I like to think that I have at least an average ability to communicate. So when I hear a phrase that doesn’t make sense to me I will ask the speaker to explain what she means.

When I have asked for this clarification with respect to one phrase in particular – I am usually greeted with a surprised look – as though the meaning of the statement is self-evident in the statement itself. That phrase is, “It’s all good.” So please, help me out here.

If, “It’s all good,” – why is the unemployment rate in the United States the worst since the Great Depression?

If, “It’s all good,” – why did six million die in the death camps in WW II?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we continue to pollute the environment which allows us to sustain our lives?

If, “It’s all good,” – why have we lost most of our manufacturing jobs to nations overseas?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we perform more than a million abortions a year?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we pay Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes seven and eight figure incomes and pay the teachers who are educating our future – our children – a mere susbsistance wage?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we tolerate the President and his family taking multi-million dollar vacations when there are homeless people on the streets of our nations capital?

If, “It’s all good,” – why did we go through a financial crisis which nearly brought down our nation?

If, “It’s all good,” – why are so many of our minority citizens uneducated, unemployed and forced to live at a poverty level on welfare?

If, “It’s all good,” – why are the values of our largest investment – our homes – continuing to decline?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we re-elect people to Congress to make new laws for us when the ones they have enacted in the past are so dreadful?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we spend thousands of dollars to have a seat at the Super Bowl and refuse to give the homeless person we meet a dollar so she can get something to eat?

If, “It’s all good,” – why do we sit apathetically by as the Constitution of this great land is ignored and eroded by those who are sworn to uphold it?

If, “It’s all good,” – what must “bad” look like?

ON BEING HOMELESS

I was invited to Stephanie and Will’s wedding in Washington, D. C. Steph was the manager for my temp business. She was a young woman with incredible talent and she was going to marry her college sweetheart. Naturally, I accepted their invitation. I hadn’t been to Washington for many years and looked forward to doing a little sight-seeing in conjunction with attending the wedding.

The wedding was a beautiful affair. It was held in an outdoor setting and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom that Saturday. I couldn’t have been happier for the two of them. They were a wonderful couple.

My departure from Washington was scheduled for late afternoon on Sunday which allowed me plenty of time to attend services at the Church of the Advent, about a three quarter mile walk from the Marriott Hotel at which I was staying.

As I started my walk I noticed two homeless people sleeping against a building. And in the next block there were several more. And yet more on every block. Washington’s clement weather allowed them to sleep outside in relative comfort.

But I found this to be extremely disturbing. In less than a mile I had counted over twenty of these homeless people sleeping on the street – within a few minutes’ walk of both our nation’s Capitol Building and the White House.

I thought back to an experience I had more than a decade before – and the thought caused me to shudder. I had been a homeless person for a week on the streets of Chicago.

My encounter with homelessness occurred as part of a “sensitivity training.” I was trying to gain an understanding of what it was like to be someone who was less fortunate than I was. Although I was never a member (and am not now) of the “upper-crust,” I had never experienced real want. This training would correct that deficiency in my life.

The “group leader” for this training, (I was a group of one), met me in his office at two in the afternoon one Sunday. I had arranged that a friend take care of my two dogs for the week I would be absent.

I met him at his office and his instruction was that I go into the other room and change my clothes to the ones I would find there. These clothes consisted of a ragged pair of bluejeans, a torn flannel shirt and a pair of shoes. The clothes had a nasty smell to them and the shoes were about two sizes too big for my feet. As I put my hands in the jeans I felt a piece of paper in the right pocket. It was a dollar bill. That was all the money I had to spend for the next week.

The instructions for this week of training were simple. I had no friends or family on whom I could call or rely on for help. I had this dollar bill to spend as I saw fit. I had to live on the streets of Chicago for a week. I thought to myself – am I merely stupid or just insane even to consider doing this? (I was offered the opportunity by Cal, my instructor to back out). But I decided to give it a go – although unenthusiastically.

So I left Cal’s office on Michigan Avenue and entered the world as a new person – a homeless person. As it was a beautiful spring day, I walked across the street into Grant Park, trying to develop a plan for how I was going to survive.

As I sat on a park bench, the weather started to change. Clouds swept in from the west and a light sprinkle began. I moved from my spot near Buckingham Fountain and tried to find some cover under some trees – but they provided little protection from the rain as they were just beginning to bud. Nevertheless, a little protection was better than none.

Then the downpour began in earnest. I was getting thoroughly soaked. The only good that could come of this was that I hoped the rain would wash away some of the odor that was attached to my clothing. It did.

I slept in Grant Park that night – next to a clump of bushes. And when I awoke in the morning I felt a little refreshed – but very hungry. How would I spend part of my dollar? What could I buy for a dollar? And when that dollar was gone – how would I survive another six days.

I realized that I had only one option – and although it troubled me to do it – I would have to beg for spare change. And so, like the people that I see on the street today who hold up signs on the side of the road, I began asking strangers if they could spare a few cents – anything.

Some people were kind; some people gave me money just so that they could get past me without a confrontation; most just  ignored my request.

This experience helped me gain a new understanding of what real need is all about. I had settled into my routine of sleeping in Grant Park and was counting down the days until I was released from my training. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday … I was over the hump. Less than three days to go.

And then a startling realization came over me. I had only a few days to go and I could go back to being your average middle-class person. But the other homeless whom I had met along the way had no such expectation. This was their life and it was the one that they were condemned to follow for however many days were left to them.

Because of this experience and because of dad’s statement, “There but for the grace of God go you or I,” I never refuse to give money to those who are less fortunate. And I hope that this post will give you reason to do the same.

 

 

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