As I left a shopping plaza a few days ago I spotted a woman, probably in her 30s, with a sign that read “Homeless veteran.” I have not been able to get her out of my mind. It’s not the paltry dollar or two that she wanted. It’s that we as a society take so little responsibility for the tragedies in our midst.
One part of our population is hawkish about foreign affairs, ready to fight anywhere around the globe, convinced that this “superpower” should whip the pants off recalcitrant countries wherever they are. And then turn around and mock the part of our population which wants to take care of our wounded and our homeless.
Real conservatives in this country used to talk about responsibility. But the way we are treating our veterans and our homeless is totally irresponsible. Men and women who have served this country abroad and whose minds and bodies have been destroyed in the process are entitled to our help and concern.
The homeless population in the U.S. is not just a story of personal irresponsibility as some would have it. Cities have bulldozed the places the homeless used to be able to afford so that the wealthier among us would not have to see buildings that had become eyesores; now we step over the people that have become eyesores to the uncaring. Mental institutions have been closed without provision for halfway houses, outpatient services and group homes because some of us don’t want them in our neighborhoods. We hound people who have paid for their crimes so that they have no path to rehabilitation, and many sleep on streets. Homelessness is not just something that happens to people; it happens in a society that has been turning its back.
Homelessness is not just something that happens to other people, people you don’t know. In an urban world it’s easy to lose track of people you used to know. I was rather comically attacked on a New York City subway car by someone I’d known as a schoolboy. He was angry at me because he remembered I’d scored better in some class we had together. In those days he had been class clown. Perhaps, there on the subway, he hadn’t been taking his medicine. It was comical – he merely knocked himself down – but it was emotionally jarring. I had two very young children at the time and was wary but it also hit home.
Another woman I’d dated in high school had spent a career working to help the homeless. She told me a story not long ago about an evening when she and her late husband, whom I also knew back when we were in school, came home to their apartment in an expensive part of New York City. There by the front door of the building they saw a disheveled man, obviously homeless, begging for loose change. Suddenly her husband said “Joe”! A friend they had lost touch with. But life had been cruel to him. She told me they took him upstairs, cleaned him up and fed him a good meal.
A young friend of ours may have spent a year homeless out west – we’ll never be sure; we only know he was identified when he finally passed away.
This is a cruel, complicated world. And I cannot subscribe to the notion that there is any shame in a heart that bleeds and a head that knows that these problems can only be ameliorated if we accept collective responsibility to handle our affairs more humanely.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 11, 2010.