Part 2 - The Zoo
Homelessness means different things to different people and even to different social services. When you say “The Homeless”, you are being no more specific than if you were to refer to “Christians” or “People living in Michigan”.
The image the public has of people in packing cases and in city parks is certainly true, but not in the numbers you would think. Many people without digs of their own shack up uncomfortably with friends and family. Called “doubling up” in the language of social services, this puts the host in danger, also, for too many people living in one apartment is legal grounds for eviction. Many of the homeless sleep in shelters. A large segment sleeps in their cars. Of the ones sleeping outdoors, some are fixed up with tents and sleeping bags, and some of the more long term and industrious live in elaborate shanties and shacks. Others shelter in abandoned buildings, railroad cars, trailers, etc. While most are individuals, there has been an alarming trend of entire families going homeless. It is the most rapidly growing demographic in the sad statistics of homelessness.
There are also different routes leading to homelessness. Loss of income is the most obvious. People lose jobs and either get new ones at a drastically lower rate of pay or are unable to find any altogether. Caught between a shrinking income on one side, and the escalating cost of living and housing on the other, they are first squeezed into living with friends and family, and then into the street. A great many are burdened by the scourge of substance abuse. There are those, also, who suffer from disabilities both physical and mental. Contrary to a popular myth, very few choose homelessness as a lifestyle. Like the notion that Obama is a Muslim, this daft idea is perpetrated by the ignorant, who pursue an agenda having nothing to do with the problem of homelessness.
No sane person chooses homelessness. Indeed, few of the insane would, either. It is demeaning, robs one of dignity, and makes one into a pariah in the eyes of society. And certainly no parent of sound mind would willingly choose to subject their children to it.
It also has costs in physical and mental health, and is, in fact, life-threatening. One year saw the death of seventeen homeless people in Worcester, dying of exposure or illnesses directly related to the condition of homelessness. Another year saw the deaths of twenty-two. A man and a woman died horribly one winter when a trailer they were sleeping in caught fire. Every winter sees the discovery of bodies frozen in cars, in parks, and in warehouses.
If you were to take a walk down a sidewalk in any inner city, you would be hard-pressed to definitively pick out the homeless. Of people lugging bags of aluminum cans, many have homes, as do many disheveled, raggedy people with missing teeth. Many neat and clean people are homeless. Most homeless people do not push their worldly possessions around in shopping carts. No longer fashionable, they have switched to baby strollers. Quite a few trundle wheeled luggage. Many use gym bags or satchels. As with the population at large, backpacks are ubiquitous.
It is true that more homeless people have substance abuse issues than the population at large. A large segment of them cycles in and out of detox regularly. But some break free of their addictions, and of those, some are among the finest people I’ve ever met. To their great credit, quite a few who are in recovery soldier on helping others suffering from substance abuse, mental health issues, and homelessness. More than a few of the homeless are ex-offenders. Many suffer from mental health problems. The line between these last two is blurred, as patients who were turned out of the State Mental Health institutions in the seventies had nowhere to go, received no treatment, and ended up on the street, becoming a nuisance to society, endangering themselves and others. They, and the ones who have come after, are arrested and serve time in prison, ironically receiving the best treatment they will ever get. Serving their time, they are released to the street again and the cycle is repeated over and over. This is such a damning indictment of the basic humanity of our society that it is hard to believe that it occurs in the U.S.A. In incongruity with American values and mores it ranks right up there with the images of the forgotten victims of Katrina at the Superdome.
There are homeless people missing limbs or cannot walk without the aid of canes or crutches. Many do not speak English. There are homeless vets that, in addition to some of the problems outlined above, have their own unique needs. More than a few of them cannot tolerate crowds, and prefer to sleep outside rather than get packed in to over-crowded shelters. Because of this, they are especially at risk in the wintertime.
It takes a person possessed of enormous character and spiritual development to not recoil, at least a little bit when mixing with these outcasts of society. I couldn’t do it, even as I myself slowly metamorphose in appearance into one of them. I am struggling every day to overcome my own barriers in reaching out to them. In a sea of body odor, bad teeth, unkempt hair, dirty and tattered clothes, one is awash in schizophrenia, paranoia, withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, desperation, and, in general, emotions in extremis.
The director George Stevens, who commanded an Army Signal Corps film unit in WWII, described how his unit was on hand when the concentration camp at Dachau was liberated. With shame, and a commendable self-honesty, he described how he could absolutely feel the same revulsion and disgust as the S.S. guards did for these emaciated, reeking, tattered scarecrows crawling with lice who pawed at him, and reflected on what an easy thing it is to become inhumane.