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Ken Williams: Amid the Recession, More and More People Call the Streets Home

We need to set aside our fears and accept that we're all in this together

Still again, harsh voices are raised against those who find the streets home. For some, there is an underlying assumption that the poor are, at best, a nuisance, and at worst, a threat. Certain people view those without homes outside of any historical, political or economic context.

Here are some basic truths. We are in the fourth year of the Great Recession, the deepest and longest economic contraction since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans have been without work for years, and millions more barely scrape by with part-time, low-paying jobs. And millions have seen their economic well-being wiped out — personal wealth obliterated, and their retirement savings and plans disappear.

We cannot overlook this most important of facts. Some seem to think that jobs are plentiful and only the lazy lack work. This, of course, is a great disservice, and an even greater insult to those unemployed and underemployed who bare not only the financial but also the psychological scars of this great failure of our economic system.

Millions of our fellow citizens lost their homes during the past four years. Federal funding for affordable and/or subsidized housing has been decimated during the past 20 years. So-called “welfare reform” has denied economic help to hundreds of thousands of families across the land when “term limits” were applied to the poor. Fifteen million children — more than 20 percent — live in poverty.

Do most locals know that the welfare benefit level for single adults (general relief) has been frozen for more than 20 years? Have rents? Fuel? Food or clothing? Can you imagine trying to exist on what your income was 20 years ago? Also, during this time, the stock of low-income rooms available to the poor — both working and unemployed — have seen a radical reduction. Seven low-income hotels with hundreds of beds that used to provide housing have either gone out of business or were converted to upscale tourist hotels. When the poor, who no longer have access to housing, turn up at homeless shelters, they and the shelters are scapegoated like it is their fault.

The societal infrastructure of our country — commonly referred to as the “safety net” — has been decimated. And still some cry for even more cuts as if hunger and homelessness are the only motivations that the poor understand.

One only has to look at the scandalous treatment of the mentally ill and veterans of our society’s addiction to war to see this lack of services to those who go without. Even after having worked the streets of our city for more than 30 years, I am still shocked, dismayed and extremely saddened when I walk down State Street and witness what the failure of our mental health delivery system for the homeless mentally ill means: an open air asylum. The other high-volume treatment center is the jail.

It seems that the best we can do is to criminalize a sickness and make criminals out of the afflicted. Perhaps we can employ this creative strategy next with diabetics, people afflicted with cancer or the blind. It makes as much sense.

And then there is the morality of treating a vulnerable group in such a callous and inhumane fashion. Let us break out of the “politically correct” paradigm of seeing the homeless as all being one. It may make us feel more comfortable with our prejudices, but it isn’t real.

» 30 to 35 percent are mentally ill

» 20 percent veterans

» 20 percent children

» 5 to 10 percent elderly

» 20 to 30 percent physically disabled

» 30 percent substance abusers

» 20 to 30 percent working unemployed

I haven’t seen good statistics on this last category, which should tell us a lot. There is overlap, as is always the case, when one looks at an individual rather than a cold statistic. Human beings are a complicated lot.

If we want real solutions, we need to put the problem — real people’s lives — in context. The homeless, like the poor, the mentally ill and damaged veterans, will not disappear because we make life hard for them. We must free the individual from this highly charged term and see what the needs are of real people and talk about concrete solutions. We live in America, and regardless of the efforts of some to bury that democracy in an obscene avalanche of money, we still have the power of the ballot, a quaint idea that some of us — rightfully, wrongfully and/or misguidedly — fought for.

As for those who call for the homeless to be driven out of town, we Americans have a fundamental right of where we live and travel. At least for now, the poor do not have to ask permission, unlike the Soviet Union where internal passports left that decision up to the state.

Homelessness and poverty are caused by many situations — a multitude of broken and dysfunctional parts of our society. The greatest weakness we have in trying to solve this bleeding problem is an inability to see beyond our prejudices, which allows us to blame the victim.

The sight of those without homes troubles us on many levels. For some, it is a call to our greater good, to live our spiritual values and help our neighbor. For others, it drapes our hearts in a dark cloud of fear that we, too, can end up on the streets if things go wrong — a lost job, an illness or injury, or a wrong choice about war and peace.

Fear breeds only fear, not solutions. We are all the same — same weaknesses, same strengths, same courage and doubts, and the same human condition that is our shared fate. We can reach out to one another as part of a community, or retreat into an abyss where every man and woman is out only for themselves. We stand in danger of becoming fragmented by greed and fear, a place where we no longer see one another as neighbors or citizens but only as the threatening “other.”

I guess it all comes down to fear and hope, and a spiritual belief that we are all in this life together, or we travel the road to hell — isolated and alone.

— 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.

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