[NOTE: This is the second part of an article started in last month’s newsletter. For the first part of the article, click here: Homeless & Hopeless, Part 01
The Fourth Challenge: WHO ARE WE LOOKING AT? There is no “homeless community”. Approaching the thousands of individuals who are sleeping on our streets as one homogenous group means that no one will be served.
I have identified 6 different types of people living unsheltered on our streets (perhaps more). Each of them faces a different reason for their lack of shelter. One solution will NOT fit all. Some of the reasons are cumulative, overlapping and negatively reinforcing.
Different strokes for different folks:
- Some are economic refugees, people who have had their life savings wiped out by a catastrophic illness (yes, even in the era of Obamacare), or the loss of a job (or an entire industry), or the termination of a relationship.
- Some are temporarily homeless, needing only minimal financial and social support for them to re-enter mainstream society.
- Some have no ability to ever do so. Culturally, socially, even spiritually, they don’t fit in (and well they shouldn’t).
- Some recognize that the “mainstream” has failed, and are looking for — and creating — alternatives. (Some are forming interesting experiments in alternative community.)
- Some have been traumatized by war — from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, to the war on “poverty”, the war on “drugs”, the war on those who are “different”.
- Some are sociopathic, angry and violent. Their psychotic, anti-social behavior is being managed by the police — with no tools and little training.
Almost all are soul-starved, trying to medicate the pain of living with various levels of alcohol/drugs.
Giving someone access to a bed in a shelter will do nothing to cure their soul starvation. It will probably make things worse. If you don’t believe me, try talking to the people who regularly use those shelter beds. (They have a name for those shelters. Find out what it is.) There’s a reason many choose to sleep on the streets, rather than go into a “shelter”.
Trying a “one size fits all” approach will mean that NONE will be served adequately.
The Fifth Challenge: WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE? We have tens of thousands of people sleeping on our streets, without jobs, performing no useful actions that benefit themselves or their society. And, we have millions of people, with good paying jobs and benefits, who ALSO perform no useful actions that benefit themselves or their society! You know this to be true. They include:
- The people working meaningless jobs that they hate. These range from minimum-wage jobs to senior positions in the “Fortune 500”. Millions of people are in therapy or are taking drugs (prescription and other) in order to get through their day.
- The people in various bureaucracies, pushing papers from one end of their desk to another, attending an endless round of meaningless meetings, writing and filing reports that no one reads and that change nothing. (My friend and associate, Dr. Donna Beegle, has middle-class participants in her “Poverty Institute” go to various helping agencies, to apply for food stamps, housing, etc., then record their experiences. Almost uniformly, they report feeling demoralized, depressed and unempowered from the experience of spending just a few hours in the cycle of poverty.)
- Every day, the Postal Service delivers tons of “junk mail” (advertisements) that no one wants, or cutting down the rainforest to make “yellow pages” directories that no one uses.
- People working in industries that are destroying the Earth, destroying communities and destroying their own health and sanity.
- People working in “entertainment” industries, keeping people drugged from the realities of their own existence.
If we end all of the useless, toxic, socially and environmentally stupid “jobs”, the majority of America would be living on the streets. We need a major re-tooling of society – one that will increase the sense of shared purpose, common vision and common sacrifice… for EVERYONE, not just the canaries already fallen to the bottom of our mutual cage. (For those who don’t understand the analogy: in the 20th Century, coal miners regularly carried canaries into the mines, to detect the presence of toxic gases. The high-metabolism canary would die first, giving the miners the warning to clear the area. BUT: what if the miners believed in Exclusivity? What if the miners said, “I am separate from what happens to that canary.” Bad for the canaries AND the miners.)
The revamping of society can (and must) start with those who have the most to gain and the least to lose. But remember: we are not revamping a corner of our society…
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for “those people”. To be effective, it must be something that will work for the current “homeless” populations, and also works for those who will be alienated from this society in the future.
The Sixth Challenge: WHERE IS OUR VISION? And now we come to the most critical issue. With vision, we can achieve the miraculous. Without vision…
Where there is no vision, the people perish…
This quote, from the Christian Bible, is chiseled into the granite sides of the Camden City Hall. It stands as a monument to the lack of vision. Camden is exactly what happens when there is no vision.
We also know the opposite. Think about this visionary statement, incorporated into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty…
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The New Colossus
Think about these words, from the base of the Statue of Liberty, as she faces toward Europe. Part vision and part hubris, she is saying, “Give us the people you don’t want — we’ll show you what to DO with them!”
What they did was create an industrial empire the world had never seen. Incredible wealth (for some), incredible poverty (for many), but something that existed at no other time in our global history — the opportunity to create opportunity for oneself. Yes, even in the times of the American Apartheid system, it was the strength of these values that drove people like Martin Luther King to struggle for those “yearning to breathe free”.
You’ve heard me say that Camden, NJ is America’s “Worst City”. You probably haven’t heard me talk about Camden in its prime. The year I was born (1951), Camden, NJ had the HIGHEST PER CAPITA INCOME of any city in the US! It was the shiny buckle on the Industrial Belt. This was particularly remarkable in that Camden had few (if any) millionaires skewing the numbers. There was a common statement in those times: “If you don’t have a job, it’s because you don’t want one.”
What happened? This vision died, consumed by the unbridled greed of capitalism. The industrialists discovered that it was a LOT cheaper to ship the industries overseas, rather than continuing to pay its domestic workers a living wage. The steel mills, the shipyards, RCA, the world-famous Campbell Soup Company… one by one, Camden’s industries abandoned the workers it had lured, our industrial capacity sent overseas in pursuit of ever-lower wages and ever-higher profits.
We know the standard, “American Dream” statement of our vision: a “good” home (with a white picket fence), a nice car, a chicken in every pot, a “good” job, a family… those were the things that drove people to work hard and play by the rules during the Industrial Era.
What’s left? Vague promises of a “return to the Good Ol’ Days” (we may refer to that as, “Back to the Future”), or even vaguer promises to maintain the status quo.
The old vision doesn’t work anymore. (It never did, for all of us.) The new story is emerging: “Creating a Portland (and Your Town) that works for all.