It is the time of year for all of us to count our blessings. It's a special time that reminds us of the importance of family, friends and the faiths that we live by. It is also the season that allows us to reflect on good fortune.
For some, 2013 ends on a bitter note. As if Congress hasn’t done enough to highlight their gross incompetence, heartlessly they now govern by meanness. As usual, it is the poor and destitute who are made to pay for their indifference to those without the means to buy Washington’s attention.
By the end of this year, an extension to unemployment benefits that hundreds of thousands of people have relied on to pay rent, buy food and clothe children will run out. The California Employment Development Department notified 222,000 of the unemployed that their benefits stop come Jan. 1. This is about one-third of the 617,000 on the unemployment rolls. For 2014, more than 3 million Americans will lose their extended unemployment benefits.
Already, many endured a 17 percent cut in unemployment benefits that took effect April 28. And making sure that the poor feel even more pain, a 5 percent reduction in food stamps benefit levels were inflicted on them.
Locally, the poor and homeless saw their access to the main soup kitchen in our town denied. This was on top of a reduction in beds available to house the homeless.
For veterans, the news is equally gloomy. The unemployment rate for veterans in California for the month of August was 8.9 percent. Technically, the Great Recession ended years ago. That is except for the unemployed, and those dependent on a helping hand from the government to put food on the table. Also suffering the lingering impact of the recession are the millions of workers who work for ever diminishing wages, and the opportunity for advancements.
Perhaps we have it wrong. Perhaps this is the new normal: stagnant wages with an army of unemployed veterans roaming our cities.
Are soup kitchens locking doors to the poor and homeless rather than feeding them also part of the new normal? Are homeless shelters denying beds to those in need because some do not want to see the face of poverty our new reality? Instead of welcoming the world’s dispossessed masses, we now engage in a variety of tactics to make it ever more difficult for our own poor and dispossessed to exist. The operating motto is: Make life difficult, and the poor will go elsewhere. Exactly where, is left vague. Perhaps ever-higher fences are the answer. Will mile-high fences topped with lacerating coils of barbed wire soon encircle our cities?
With a blind eye and little public cry, the poor suffer increasingly alone, abandoned to the new Darwinian religion that those who possess do so because of some innate superior quality. Or perhaps it is because of an insider’s connection with God. And those not so blessed, it must be because they deserve their fate, that somehow, through karma or being a bad person, they are reaping what they sowed. Of course, that is a two-way street, for without compassion for our neighbors in crisis and need, we, too, someday will reap what we sow.
However, maybe there is still hope: San Francisco. A sophisticated, international metropolitan city somehow found it in their hearts to make fantasy a reality for one day for a 5-year-old boy battling cancer. They turned their city over to Miles so he could live his dream of being “Batboy” for a day. Up to 12,000 citizens of that city participated in the effort, including the chief of police and the city’s newspaper.
For this day, the whole village raised a child. Would it not be nice if we could find that place in our hearts that allow us to overcome our fears? The place where our love of our fellow citizens would urge us to reach out with a helping hand to alleviate the suffering of the poor and neglected. To see our neighbors, including those without homes, not as threatening masses out to take what little we have, but simply as people — no different than you or I. To demand that as long as this economy stagnates and veterans return from yet ever more unfathomable wars, only to find the streets their new home, that our representatives in Washington actually represent us — the best in us and not the dark cancer of fear, hatred and envy.
Let us live up to our highest ideals. Let our faith show us that to help those in need is not weakness but strength. That if love and compassion can transform a city, perhaps it can make us all better neighbors.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.