Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Strong backs, unbroken spirits

[A slightly edited version of the following post appeared in yesterday's edition of The Dallas Morning News.]

Homeless people are human beings.   

As such, they must find restroom facilities.  They must satisfy their hunger.  They must identify places where they can sit and rest periodically.  And, just like me, they need at least a modest amount of capital to survive, even if hand to mouth.   

Most of my friends, who experience life today without a place to call home, face tough odds when it comes to landing a job.  Earning money is a huge challenge when your home base is an emergency, night shelter or worse, the hard, mean streets.  The countless day-to-day details and challenges of poverty this deep exhaust my capacity to comprehend. 

Like all human beings homeless people make mistakes.  By comparison, the mistakes I make seem to be much more forgiving than the missteps of a person so poor that they have no place to call home.  The social safety net beneath my feet is so strong and woven so tightly that my missteps don’t affect me for very long.  Such is not the case with my very poor friends who need a place to live.   

Recently, during a Dallas City Council Quality of Life Committee meeting, we heard harsh words about some of our weakest neighbors from more than one elected official.  Frustration over “panhandlers” escalated to the extreme counsel that the city needed to get tough on people who beg for money on our streets.  “Break their backs break their spirit — that’s the only way we’re going to win this battle,” one city council member demanded of police. Referencing the negative impact the presence of beggars had on business interests in his district and extremely frustrated, this otherwise, sensible, measured member of city leadership erupted in anger.  

Homelessness frustrates everyone who knows anything about, including and most especially those who live in its terrible grip. 

I would suggest that the person I meet on the street who begs for pocket change or a meal already has had his/her spirit broken at least to some extent.  I also know that the remedy to the frustrating reality of people begging on our streets will not be found by throwing folks in jail.   

So, what can we do? 

First, we need aggressive, stepped up outreach to chronically homeless persons who live on our streets.  The goal would be to assess vulnerability and to secure every available benefit for this segment of our community, including disability income, health care, SNAP (food stamps), shelter and ultimately permanent supportive housing.  This will require political will, an increase in public funding, and additional case workers from the public and non-profit sectors who willingly work together to deliver relief and hope.  The return on such investment for everyone would be substantial. 

Second, we must realize that our jails can no longer be allowed to serve as the public mental health system for the poorest people among us. Adequate funding for our mental health system would dramatically improve the “quality of life” all of us experience on our streets.   We’re paying today for three decades of under-investment in these vital services.

Third, we must develop hundreds of additional units of permanent supportive housing for those who live in shelters and/or on the streets of our city.  No matter how effectively we may intervene in the lives of people so poor that they are forced to beg on our streets, without real housing we will not achieve the outcomes we all desire.   

Homelessness frustrates everyone who knows anything about it.  Business owners and merchants, law enforcement personnel, homeowners in crossroads neighborhoods, drivers stopped at traffic lights at busy, urban intersections, couples out for an evening downtown—all share concern and some aggravation at the presence of homeless persons who beg for assistance.  However, none are more frustrated than those who know homelessness as a personal, defining experience and reality.  

Rather than breaking human backs and human spirits, the better approach would involve us in straightening and strengthening backs and restoring spirits as a community distinguished by its radical care for all of its members. 


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