While out Christmas shopping with my wife on Sunday morning, we drove past a solitary homeless man sitting quietly in the shadows beneath the freeway along Nimitz. I wondered who he was, what he was thinking, what his life must be like and why he just sat there in his own silence engulfed in the noise and exhaust of a seemingly endless stream of cars and traffic.
Seems like a world gone awry as I joined the throngs stuck in holiday traffic, shuffling from store to store seeking Christmas gift bargains, in line with so many others struggling to decide between a Kindle or a Nook, or choosing between Lancome or Chanel. We covered much of the island that day and in the process drove by so many others in so many other lines – lines of makeshift tents on hard sidewalks because it is against the law to sleep 5 feet away on the soft grass in the park, lines waiting for a hot meal and a dry safe place to sleep, lines of crouched figures huddled in doorways to get out of the rain.
While I spent my weekend determined to assemble an array of suitable gifts for family members and close friends, I can only think today of that man under the freeway and of all the others we passed by that day.
Yes, I feel badly and sad at the situation faced by my fellow human beings and will attempt to assuage these feelings by making a donation to a worthy nonprofit and perhaps volunteer at the homeless shelter in which I have helped in the past. But of course this is not enough.
The condition of the homeless in our community is a reflection of us and who we are.
While many good people with a high and noble intent are trying their best, our community response in dealing with the homeless issue is woefully inadequate. While most of us with homes, jobs and families profess sadness and sympathy for the disadvantaged, those feelings easily pivot toward outrage and indignation. Our genteel sensibilities are offended by the sight and smell of poverty, mental illness and addiction. God forbid that our children or our visitors from the mainland should be exposed to such ugliness.
Our first reaction is to clear them from the parks. We want to be able to throw Frisbee, barbeque our burgers and take our early morning and late afternoon jogs without the inconvenience, the unsightliness and the fear that sometimes comes with being in close proximity to the mentally ill and others who lack contemporary social skills and whose personal hygiene may be inadequate.
We have more or less successfully cleared our parks of the homeless and now are determined to sweep the remaining stragglers off our streets and into the shelters where they belong. We have done our best to criminalize the poor and mentally ill by banning from public places first their shopping carts, then their tents and now virtually all of their personal belongings.
Push them into the shelters seems to be the mantra. Do not feed the homeless. Make them go to the shelters if they want to eat. This is tough love. Withhold the feedings, send police to dismantle their camps, take away and destroy their personal items and make them go into the shelters where they can be fed, monitored, cared for, and warehoused properly.
Put them away for their own good and so we don’t have to look at them anymore.
I am hoping that this is not the case and that there is more. I am hoping that both the public and the private sector will step up to the plate and provide for dramatically increased mental health services. I am hoping that government, landowners and developers will create and build affordable housing that is accessible to all and that our State, City and Federal government strengthens the social safety net while increasing employment and rebuilding core public infrastructure.
I am hopeful but not optimistic, so therefore I am angry.