“Four more days until we move into our apartment.”
A young mother confides this as she and her husband round up their two kids. It’s 7:40 a.m. They were supposed to be out the door at 7:30. They are staying at a church, one of several participating in an interfaith shelter program. Church volunteers let families fudge the departure time, but it’s stressful. This family has been moving between shelters for weeks. Finally, maybe, hopefully, relief in sight. “I’m lucky,” she says.
41 million Americans live in poverty. 9 million of those have no income. Diseases we associate with third world countries, like hook worm and hepatitis A, are turning up in homeless camps. The number of people living on the street in Los Angeles alone increased by 25% last year.
Homelessness is a problem in every country, but among western European nations the US ranks poorly. A 2007 study found attitudes in the US less compassionate toward homeless people than other countries. The highest rates for lifetime homelessness were in the UK (7.7% of the population) and United States (6.2%). The lowest rate was in Germany (2.4%).
Can we be more like Germany?
The question is big, and complicated. Action on the national level looks unlikely in the short term at least. Funds to help low income people are being squeezed at every level of government.
For most of us, for me, the issues homelessness raises are overwhelming. Better to break them down and do what we can, now.
1. Avoid, as one woman living on the street puts it, committing the violence of looking away. Homelessness sooner or later confronts all of us: on the streets, in doorways, in parks and public restrooms. It’s tempting to judge, ignore, step over, turn away, forget. Don’t.
Homelessness embodies the heart of our divisiveness. It’s the dark side of a country where 3 people hold more wealth than 50% of the population. People are priced out of housing, don’t have access to training or a decent education, and there aren’t enough jobs that pay enough to live on. Face it, square on, and know we can do better.
2. Focus locally. Sure, write congressmen and state legislators, maybe even run for office, but find out first what’s going on in your own neighborhood. Communities everywhere are experimenting with all kinds of strategies. Locally, you can feel the impact your effort makes, and learn what works and what doesn’t.
3. Volunteer, even if it’s only a little. Over time it makes a difference. Try shifts at a food kitchen or at one of the churches that house or shelter homeless people. Spend time in and support libraries, which absorb and manage homeless issues every day.
This isn’t to make you feel virtuous or to relieve guilt. You’ll probably feel less virtuous and more guilty. But it will help you understand.
Having a conversation with a homeless person about kids, schools or the weather provides a glimpse into how small the gap is between your life and theirs, and how challenging it is to be in a strange situation 24/7. For most without a home, the basics of life — where to sleep, what to eat and where to go to the bathroom — are dictated by other people.
Cleaning up, cooking and organizing supplies and food offers insights into the complexity behind all of our lives, and why it is so difficult, once you lose everything, to put life together again.
Getting to know the volunteers and staff who run homeless programs, treatment facilities, and food programs is inspiring.
And hearing a young mother staying in a shelter call herself “lucky” brings to life any gift of time or money.
It’s hard to face this dark underside of the richest country in the world, but we are perfectly capable of making things better. We start by bridging the gap between “us and them,” in small and powerful first steps.
Other countries have done it. We can, too.
Featured photo credit: D.C.Atty