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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 11:34 am |


Ken Williams: Injustices of Social and Economic Inequality Hit Close to Home

The cancerous injustice of social and economic inequality continues to worsen. By 2016, the world’s richest 1 percent will own roughly what the bottom half of the world’s population will — that encompasses 3.5 billion people! And according to this Oxfam study, the richest 80 people in the world will own $1.9 trillion, slightly less than what the poorest half of the world’s population will. Last year, the top 85 owned this much.

I guess even some of the mega wealthy are sliding down the economic pole. I wonder how much longer it will be until one person captures the flag at the top of the hill and owns what the less fortunate bottom half of the world’s population have in material wealth.

Across the country, more than half of the children who attend public schools fall under the federal guidelines for poverty. In California, the disparities between white families and African-American families are at record highs. In 1970, African-American families earned half of what white families earned. In 2014, white families made 80 percent more than African-American families — $90,000 to $48,000. Middle-class income is stagnant. It has yet to recover from the devastating horrors of the Great Recession.

I read these grim statistics and immediately think of the starving masses in the Third World. But that isn’t fair, or accurate. One only has to visit homeless camps that are scattered across America, like so many tumbleweeds, to see the devastating results of such radical income and wealth disparity.

During my work as a social worker, I once entered a homeless camp to find a man I was looking for unconscious. I was going to continue to move on to the next camp, assuming he was drunk, when the horde of flies that had descended on his leg wound caught my eye. This man was old — old for being homeless. Infections ate away at what little strength he had left. Another time, same condition, different shelter rules then, a friend and I literally carried this man into the building to secure him an emergency bed for the evening.

Then there was another instance when I ran into Tony. He was complaining about a leg wound that was driving him crazy. Bending down, I rolled up his pant leg. He warned me I wouldn’t like what I was about to see. The sudden sunlight scattered the maggots eating away at the rotting flesh. I have told this story to others, and a few commented in return how therapeutic maggots could be. I remember thinking: How would you like your infections to be at the mercy of maggots that were picked up on the unsanitary streets? They did not come from some wholesome medical setting but from flies.

Yet another time, I had called an ambulance to take one of my wheelchair-bound homeless clients to the hospital. When we lifted him from the chair, a bloodcurdling scream that I will never forget came from the depths of the man’s soul. His weak grasp on my arm was surprisingly unsettling sad. Looking down into the seat of his wheelchair, I saw a pool of blood and urine with floating dead maggots. This gentle and kind man would be released back to the streets, only to die within days.

It isn’t correct to think that this insane discrepancy in wealth is something that affects only the poor, huddled masses of the Third World. In our lifetime, we have seen the invasion and occupation of extreme poverty in our country. Our streets have become dumping grounds for vets wounded in mind, body and spirit by the horrors of war. They have also become the de facto “shelter” for countless women, beaten out of their homes by hardened fists. The streets are also the results of our failed drug policies that have seen our incarceration rates become the highest in the world. Where does one go if imprisoned and then released without job skills and a rap sheet?

Increasingly, the marginalized elderly find homelessness the exit point of their lives. And hundreds of thousands children find, surely through no fault of their own and if lucky, a shelter shared with total strangers home, if not so lucky then a car, a park or a homeless encampment. Millions were thrown out of work by the greed of investment bankers playing Russian Roulette with economic concepts given birth to by the hallucinations of obscene wealth.

Some of the unemployed, broken in spirit ended up homeless. Moreover, there is the grand failure of our foster care system sending hundreds of thousands of kids into the jungle, being dared to survive however they can. In the end, the streets become a collection of millions of our neighbors pushed into a one-way funnel.

I’m not sure when we lost our morale compass, when it became “common knowledge” that the poor are to blame for their own circumstances, when community was replaced by the concept of a jungle, where only the supposedly smartest and fittest (perhaps ruthless) are allowed to participate in an increasingly materialistic world.

As for me, I honor the memories of so many homeless people I have been privileged to know. Many have taught me the real meaning of spiritual values. But I do not glamorize poverty. Each person mentioned in this article died alone and homeless. Scared. Not one of them was to know the simple decency of a home when Death came calling.

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.

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