In politics, one of the most well known idioms of all is the quote “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin 1789. Historical footnote – according to wikipedia the phrase was used earlier in “The Political History of the Devil” by Daniel Defoe in 1726.
It costs money to run a government. Funding essential government services such as police, fire, airports, harbors, roads, public transportation, schools, parks, environmental protection, homeless shelters and a myriad of other services and facilities is expensive, but it must be done. For without those services, there is a price to pay none-the-less.
By not funding homeless shelters, affordable housing, addiction treatment and mental health services the population in need of these services grows daily, huddling beneath their blue tarps under bridges, in the door-ways of our businesses and in our public parks. There is a human price that comes with an increase in human suffering and a financial price that impacts business directly, especially in a tourism-based economy. In the end, government (read: you and me) pay even more to fund the emergency room visits, the cleaning up of the parks and bus stops, the increased calls for police services and the damage to private property.
There are few options really. As a community we can look the other way, an immoral choice that does not reduce the cost. Or, we prioritize our public budgets and fund the essential services needed to protect and serve the most vulnerable.
Those who advocate a “survival of the fittest” and “every man for himself” approach to the world will likely say to those living at the outer margins of our society, “get a job”. A simple and grossly ignorant sound-bite that resonates with some, until it is pointed out that most of the available jobs do not pay a living wage, affordable rentals are impossible to find and many of the most vulnerable in our community are in fact unemployable.
If you don’t have teeth, or don’t have a regular home to bathe and sleep in, are very old, or have mental health or addiction challenges there are no jobs for you. You can’t get a job pushing carts in a shopping center or serving fast food without teeth and clean clothes to wear. There also is no dental care for you, no homes you can afford and no mental health or drug treatment facilities available to you. With few exceptions, this is the world for the very poor in our community. Government does attempt to provide a safety net and we have good people doing their best in the human services sector, but they are overwhelmed and under-resourced.
I prefer a “we are all in this together” view of the world. That lady at the bus stop is our sister and she is our responsibility. We can look the other way and disown her, we can be angry at her and disgusted at the way she lives, but we have to deal with her. If we ignore her she will only further hurt herself, and the broader community in the process and the tangible financial price for ignoring her is significant. Or we can collectively dig a little deeper into our pockets to pay for the support and services she needs.
To be clear there are many in our community who can never be employed and will never “get better”, but they are still our collective responsibility. Incarceration is extremely expensive and while the criminalization of the poor is increasingly the direction of policy makers, putting people in jail because they smell badly, have no place to live, or curl up to sleep in a park or under a bridge is unconscionable.
That lady at the bus stop is my sister. While I do not have to invite her and her deep challenges into my home, I do have to accept my societal responsibility that she is a human being and I must recognize there is a cost and a responsibility that must be carried.
NOTE: This was first published in the October 25th, 2017 The Garden Island, “Hooser-Policy & Politics” weekly column.