Recently, a YouTube group has released a couple videos in an effort to grow poverty awareness. The most recent shows a child who looks around 12 years old, who pretends to be homeless, sitting on the sidewalk of a busy street asking for help as he freezes in the cold. Several minutes pass showing people walk by the kid and take notice of him, but not stop to help him. Towards the end, a homeless man goes over to console the kid. Although these videos may jolt some into action and make us become more aware of a person who might be in need, they also touch on the deeper issue of our growing discontent of seeing and living with the homeless.
Many assume that living on the streets is an outcome earned by those individuals themselves. The homeless man or woman made a wrong choice and maybe we think they don’t deserve to live on the streets, but we’re not going to help them either. It further distracts the public from the growing inequality that continues even as we move away from the recession into a “recovery.” The truth is, 44% of the homeless population do have jobs.
The real issue is the way we perceive the homeless in economic and social terms. We can see it with the cutting of social programs and housing developments by our politicians and ruling economists. We can see it with cities like San Francisco as they try to literally wash away their problem, and with Florida arresting people who want to feed the homeless, and with stores installing spikes to stop homeless from sleeping in public areas. To fully acknowledge the issue of people being homeless and its continued growth, we need to alter the way we see these individuals.
Around 20-25% of homeless adults suffer from a mental illness. This highlights two important aspects of homelessness’ history. Since the 1980’s, we began to cut the budget to mental hospitals and its underfunding has continued to this day. This didn’t leave any options for people suffering with mental illnesses to go.
At the same time there are almost 50,000 veterans (many who suffer from PTSD) who find themselves living on the street any given night. This is particularly significant in comparison to our bloated military budget that’s handed off to military contracts and continues the expansion of 900 bases across the world. This signifies that there is money available to fix the problem, but the unwillingness to grant this money to those returning home from war is a continuation of our economic and political ruling ideology.
A recent video surfaced showing a former veteran harassing a homeless person because he found out the homeless man was wearing military jacket even though he had never served in any army. Aside from taking part in the persecution of the homeless, the former veteran does little to examine the man’s background. He doesn’t know the man, yet he feels that wearing clothing from the military is an insult that has to be pointed out and stopped. The issues of poverty or the fact that this man is literally living in the streets never enter into the veteran’s mind — instead he focuses on the superficial image of “patriotism.” Is it patriotic to disregard the poorer sections of your community? For many returning veterans, the irony of the situation is not missed, as most can relate to the homeless man’s predicament of being misunderstood, persecuted.
But how can we begin to acknowledge the issue of poverty in this country without acknowledging the economic model we all live under? Our economists may have different points of view, but they all come from a similar background of how to present economics. Whether neoclassical, Keynesian, or neoliberal, these groups help in promoting the segregation of the classes and the growth of inequality. They do this simply by not acknowledging it or framing it in a different manner where people blame each other and become distracted from the real issue. It’s impossible to have an actual debate on poverty and classes without being seen as the perpetrator of class warfare.
And those who would point to growing movements like the $15-an-hour wage protests, or companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s raising wages to $10 an hour (in the case of McDonald’s, only a small portion of their staff would receive the wage increase), entirely miss the point. While the $15-an-hour wage increase is important, it doesn’t address the roots of the problem that make up and run our economy: the big banks, the lack of regulation of financial trading, the sub-prime car loans, stagnating wages, lack of investment in infrastructure, the housing bubble, pay-day loans, charter schools using public land while cutting the budgets of public schools. The list goes on.
As the Federal Reserve continues to extend its low interest rates for lending to big businesses and the banks, these groups are still slow on extending that money to the public. We’re also not seeing an increase in well-paying jobs with security as the economy grows. We’re not seeing investment into local communities that could helping deteriorating cities like Detroit, Baltimore (which is becoming the new Detroit), and many other cities.
The politicians fall in line – if they’re not already in the pockets – of pay-day loans and the growth of debtor prisons (which were ruled illegal since 1833). Jon Oliver has done a fantastic job on illustrating these troubling issues that affect the middle and lower class on his show Last Week Tonight. These issues are of course products of creating poverty and homelessness, and without change it will only get worse.
To highlight our disconnect of poverty even further, look to liberal bastion cities like New York and San Francisco (San Francisco being the most expensive place to live in the US) to see how much rent has skyrocketed in these cities in the last decade. The dramatic increase in rent has gentrified neighborhoods and created the most segregated schools in the US. These are cities that are supposed to extend help to the community, but both cities are continuing to see an increased income divide and a loss of culture as their economy gets “better.”
Even in my own city of Corvallis with the opening of a wet homeless shelter, debate continuesas people already are getting anxious about the growing presence of homeless living in our parks, and of finding needles in a park across the street from a school. People who might like to do more for the panhandler looking up at them as they enter the grocery store have their own busy lives to live.
Yet, when I look around my own town, I see the people, young and old, in the streets. I learn that many of the people here are veterans, have lost their jobs, come from troubled and abusive homes. Some struggle with heroin and meth addiction, but that only highlights another symptom of poverty. Without hope, what is there to hold on to?
Utah has been one of the first states to implement a simple solution that is the best one so far: they created housing for the homeless. After doing the math and seeing that it cost more to have people living on the streets with medical bills, they built housing. In most cases, it’s allowed people who lived on the streets without employment to actually be hired and hold onto jobs.More cities are coming together to build tiny home communities for their homeless. And while these solutions may not alter the presence of poverty right away, they are creating a communal spirit that is challenging the current economic model and beginning the transition to something better for everyone.