There are no agreeable statistics on the homeless in America. Down the road in St. Joseph, Missouri, the local paper again reported on the homeless in their community. St. Joe teeters on the banks of the Missouri River – so the homeless often congregate along the river, under bridges and on rock levies. The seclusion seems to attract them. The newspaper reported finding only four homeless last week at a popular encampment. The same encampment last year had eight participants. The conclusion, St. Joe is doing a better job of dealing with the social rejects. The City Fathers pat themselves on the back and celebrate at the local watering hole with a cocktail. There are better means of measurement, better means of understanding the homeless, and better means of responding as a society.
Well, we measure everything else by counting – so there – case closed. But not so fast Bob-a-looey, measuring the ‘problem’ of homeless is not so simple. We put the word ‘problem’ in quotes because the problem is in the eyes of the beholder. Homeless shelters are offered, job programs funded, food kitchens have stocked pantries, local churches band together to help their fellow man. But the ‘problem’ persists. The actual number of homeless people increases every year.
I don’t think we, as a society, have done a very good job of identifying the problem. Most of us were raised in the Jesuit tradition of living in a home, working forty hours, and going to church on Sunday – making our weekly tithe contribution. It seems to us that everyone should live as we do. So we measure the homeless population by our values – and our seemingly logical solutions reflect our values. The measurements come up short because we are measuring the wrong data.
This writer has worked and volunteered at the same social service agencies dedicated to cleaning up the river banks, to rescuing the downtrodden, to saving the helpless, threading the eye of the needle as a gateway to Heaven. We will walk through the Pearly Gates and God will thump us on the forehead with his middle finger, look at us in disgust, and then invite us in to the ultimate shelter from damnation. We will be seated in the middle row, the homeless will have front row seats.
A few years back the local bleeding hearts, those people who have economically prospered to the point of having time on their hands, decided to create a vegetable garden to help feed the degenerate homeless. They found a vacant lot on the south side of the downtown. They hired a tiller and ground up the sod. The ladies had purchased nice garden gloves from Dillard’s. The ladies dutifully planted the seed of corn and tomatoes and squash and green beans. They went to the local food kitchen and informed the homeless gathered for lunch of their opportunity. The homeless, the ladies said, could watch over the garden and find the rewards of work and food. Then the ladies went to the Country Club for their afternoon golf game, satisfied that God would grant them immediate admission. The homeless went back to the river for a round of CAV (Cheap Ass Vodka). The summer wore on and weeds grew in the garden. By late summer the Country Club was buzzing with the ultimate glory or martyrdom. “The homeless are so lazy,” was a common refrain. Followed by the choral sounds of dismay, “Look what we did for them. We spent money and a whole morning planting seeds. Those ungrateful people did not lift a finger to help. I’ll have another double martini, please.” No one had bothered to include the homeless in the initial planning; no one had asked the opinion of the target audience.
While working at a local social service agency we had regular contact with several of the homeless folks in St. Joe. One of the men, I’ll call him George, had worked for thirty-five years as a custodian at a local company. His wife of thirty-five years died, George retired, sold his mobile home, and moved to the river with his pension check. George was 69 when we first met. George shared his pension check with the others around the campfire. When the check would come they would march together to a local grocery and purchase canned food that could be heated on a campfire – the remaining money was invested in CAV – big plastic jugs of inoculation against the ills of society. When the food runs out, they march together to the local food kitchen. About one in five of the homeless that I came in contact with has some sort of income – a pension or social security disability. That is enough to support a small group at their standard of acceptance.
George was diagnosed as a simple schizophrenic, his IQ was average. He had difficulty staying focused on any give topic for more than an hour or so. He was able to work as a custodian because his supervisor and fellow workers kept him on task. Without purposeful direction, George would be unable to manage pulling weeds in a garden. His home life was organized by his wife – after she died George could not maintain his home. His entire social life revolved around his wife. They had no children. Because of his mild mental condition, George never belonged to any clubs or organizations, was never accepted at a church. George found acceptance and a sense of belonging with the homeless community.
The social service community found a ‘home’ for George. In the old days we called these places Nursing Homes. George stayed for about a month and then wandered back to the river. I asked George why he did not stay in the home with a warm room and three meals a day. George’s answer was simple, “They don’t like me there. Those people want to play board games and watch television. I can’t sit still for that. Then they tell me I am not being friendly. The Nurses got mad a me, they said I was causing problems. My friends at the river like me.”
So what is the problem? The problem is that we cannot stand watching someone live in a manner we don’t understand. The logical solution seems simple, offer them a shadow of our life. If we were able to measure the causes of homelessness, we might better understand – but we would not like the real solution. I submit here, anecdotally at best, the cause of homelessness.
We are all social creatures. We like living in a tribe. We like having a sense of belonging. We like to be accepted by others. The homeless live a simple subsistence lifestyle. They meet their rudimentary needs of food and shelter – then seek social bonding. This is not unlike any of the rest of us. We like to be around people who are like us. We are not very tolerant of those who are different.
The homeless are about one degree off the center of society. They have all of the needs of any human, but are unable to fit their square peg into our round hole. Society’s expectation is that the peg must adjust. Most of us understand that we must conform to the rules of the club if we want to belong. The homeless understand this simple idea. We are not unlike the homeless. if we don’t like the church, we find another church. If we don’t like the job, we find another job. The homeless do not find acceptance in mainstream clubs – so they have formed their own. Sort of like the Free Masons – but their temples are less ornate.
People are more cruel than others in the mammal kingdom. Other packs of mammals just kill the outcast, putting them out of their misery. We like to keep them alive so we have something to point at with our righteous fingers. Make no mistake – the food kitchens are good. Homeless people are able to survive because we offer help. Homeless Shelters are good, on cold winter nights the shelter of the bridge over the river is not enough. We should continue to offer our hand of help – but we must not force anyone to take our hand.
The Homeless will have front row seats in heaven because they honestly accept others, regardless of circumstance. They share their pensions and disibility checks, they share their lives, they contribute to their community. They have no expectations of others – they learned long ago not to trust promises of exclusive clubs.