When the homeless are scapegoated and draconian solutions proposed to make life so uncomfortable as to move them on — anywhere other than here — stop and think: Do those who engage in this rhetoric ever ask the simple question, where do the homeless come from? Do we live in such a bubble, a place of being where “the rabble” mysteriously materialize out of thin air simply to hassle our life here in paradise?
Please consider these harsh statistics and information:
Forty-six million Americans, the largest number since we as a country began to collect such information, now live in poverty. That is 15.1 percent — one out of every six of our fellow citizens live poor. This is an increase of 2.5 million since 2009. Of that number, 15.4 million live their daily existence in extreme poverty, which is defined as a family having less than half the cash income of a family merely living in simple poverty.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the highest poverty rate in the developed world.
For California, the numbers are equally as bleak. Six million of our neighbors, 16.3 percent, live in poverty. Since 2009, the median income in our state has fallen 4.6 percent, the largest decline ever recorded.
Highlighting that is the fact that medical bills are the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in America. Many of us are one sickness or accident away from homelessness. A staggering 16.6 percent are without medical coverage — again, the highest ever recorded.
Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues to devastate the wealth and standard of living for the middle and lower classes. As of June 30, 10.8 million mortgages, or 22.5 percent, were under water. In plain English, they owe more on their homes than they are worth.
Yet corporate America sits on a staggering amount of cash on hand — somewhere between $2 trillion and $2.5 trillion. Still, some call for even more tax cuts for the rich and fight tooth and nail against any tax increases for the rich — including oil companies and those making a financial windfall from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When is enough, enough? When is greed satiated? When will all of this cash be spent to rehire the 15 million unemployed?
Who wants to be the one to look into the eyes of the 22 percent of our children who live in poverty and tell them growing up poor is acceptable? That growing up in homeless shelters is now a fact of life, a right of passage for many of our children? Who among us will tell them the streets have replaced the split-level suburban home as the American Dream — now the American Nightmare?
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to bleed our national treasure in lives lost and ruined. Secondarily to the lives lost of our precious children, the financial costs are staggering. According to the National Priorities Project, we have spent $800 billion in Iraq and $450 billion in Afghanistan for a total of $1.24 trillion. This doesn’t count the forever cost of treating the wounded veterans of those wars and of other wars for the foreseeable future. Nor does it factor in the interest rate that we must pay since we funded these wars on the cheap without raising taxes to pay for them.
So the next time we see the homeless and poor as “The Other,” as the living nightmares that some would have us prism our sight with, remember reality and our moral teaching: They are us and we are them. We are one country, one society and neighbors all. Together we climb out of this mess, or together we perish. There is no other way.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.