Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake”
"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. "
—Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey
My memory isn’t as sharp as I wish.
I remember the changes in New York City in the 1980s, but don’t remember when or how they started. It seemed like overnight the city became flooded with homeless people.
They relieved themselves in phone booths, on the sides of buildings, on the sidewalks, and on stairways of buildings. At night, walking on the sidewalk became like navigating a labyrinth because of the cardboard boxes the homeless slept in and rows of drunken beggars.
I commuted between New York and New Jersey to work in a language school. When I had to go home at night, there were no places to sit in Penn Station because the homeless occupied all the benches. They were dirty and foul-smelling. Some were menacing.
I hated them. If I had had the power, I would have sent them all to forced labor camps.
There are a lot of theories for the increase of homeless men and women on the streets of NYC. “Deinstitutionalization” was bureaucrat language for kicking people out of state run clinics. There was the ballyhooed crack epidemic.
—Prior to the 1980s they [the homeless] were the stereotypical middle aged, white men, who had similar alcohol problems, living in skid row areas like the Bowery in New York,” explains Eric Hirsch, a historian of homelessness and professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. “We then saw new groups emerge: younger people and families—a much more economically driven homeless.
Brendan O’Flaherty, a professor at Columbia University and economist who has done research for the Department of Homeless Services in the past, has put forward another argument. According to his research, the rise in income inequality and the impact of this widening gap on the housing market is at the origin of modern homelessness.
I have had an ambiguous relationship with the homeless for many years. I disliked them for the inconveniences they caused me; however, I would give them money from time to time to buy food, cigarettes, or booze.
What changed my attitude was getting to know some homeless people and discovering their variety and their humanity.
Once I stopped to give a few dollars to a young man with dreadlocks. I was embarrassed to find I had no singles. I apologized to the man. His response was gracious and moving:
—That’s OK, man —he said with a sweet smile, —I appreciate your good intentions.
He was not being sarcastic.
I ran into the same guy a few weeks later and gave him five dollars. He remembered me. We talked for a few minutes. He was an intelligent, decent human being.
I got to know another homeless man who wandered around the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the Metropolitan Opera. He was at once well dressed and shabby—his clothes were old and worn, but clean and formal. He was well educated, well informed, and opinionated.
He requested that I bring him any old magazines and books I could spare. He was delighted with the old copies of The New Yorker and The Nation that I would give him. We shared some interesting conversations about art and politics.
There was a little girl named Jessica in my fourth grade class. I used to yell at her for coming to class late every day. She wrote me a letter asking me to please not scream at her explaining that she and her mother were homeless, spent the nights on subway cars and in subway stations, and that sometimes it was difficult for her to get to school.
I felt horrible. From then on I made sure she got breakfast from the school cafeteria. If she fell asleep in class, I didn’t wake her. I paid for her trips. I gave her and her mother money for food.
These and other encounters with the homeless have changed my opinion of this heterogeneous community.
There are no simple solutions for the problems of homeless people and of the frustrated people who live in communities where the homeless create difficulties. One of the problems is the heterogeneity I’ve mentioned.
Some of the homeless are malevolent, irresponsible grifters. Some are violent predators. Some are drunks or addicts. Many seem to be deranged.
There are also shell-shocked veterans who have not received treatment: some have been poisoned by Agent Orange or depleted Uranium—or became addicted to pharmaceutical drugs.
There are people whose jobs have been outsourced or people whose savings have been exhausted because of emergencies.
Violent and aggressive vagrants should be taken off the streets and institutionalized; obliged to live somewhere where they would be kept from hurting others or themselves, but cared for. If this sounds Utopian, it isn’t. It is done in more civilized countries.
The young man with dreadlocks, the shabby philosopher, and Jessica and her mom, deserve something more: shelter, food, medical care, and counseling; the opportunity for training and job placement that will help them live like the rest of us.
The homeless create problems. But it’s not always their fault. They have nowhere to go. They have to bathe and do their laundry in public bathrooms, sleep on subway trains, benches, or the ground; find or beg for food; avoid cops and predators. Finding a bathroom at night is difficult. It’s not an enviable life.
They can be a pain in the ass, but as another AVA writer, who has been homeless himself, observed,
—Don’t get too puritanical about it, just in case things keep going the way they are, and you end up out there yourself…
He’s right: one never knows.
It’s a good idea to remember that the homeless are people too.