Not long ago I sat down to lunch with a woman in our community prominent for her advocacy for Hispanic causes — be it for the farm worker or the illegal migrant and everyone in-between. I admire her as a savvy, caring business women. Imagine my surprise , during the course of our conversation, when she lashed out against the homeless, accusing them of making the city unattractive to tourists and incoming business.
Having spent a good part of my political life as an advocate for the homeless, I should have straightened her out. Instead, I listened, stunned by the anger pouring from this normally compassionate woman. She imagined people were homeless because they were lazy, a premise out of sync with her advocacy for migrant laborers who work hard but barely manage to keep a roof over their heads. Listening to her, I realized she had no idea how difficult it was to be homeless.
Over two million people are without permanent shelter in this country. They are veterans, children, the sick, the elderly and the mentally ill, people worthy of our protection. (“Division Street,” by Rebecca Solnit, Harper’s, October 2016, 44.) If they are lucky, they live in tents — ironically, those the middle class buy for recreational camping. They litter the public by-ways, leaving unsavory waste behind because, having a biology like the rest of us, they are obliged to relieve themselves in the open without the hope of privacy.
What my friend failed to realize was that living on the streets requires survival skills most of us never think about: where to bathe, do a laundry, get a meal. It includes finding a way to avoid being arrested or beaten or having personal possessions stolen. Staying alive is hard work.
People like Donald Trump, who avoid paying taxes, want to marginalize the homeless. That way no one of has to feel guilty. That way, landlords who raise rents, making housing unaffordable, can sleep well at night.
A while ago, some legislator got the bright idea of making the poor pay for indigent programs by imposing fines for various infractions. if the offender can’t pay, throw the individual in jail. “Municipal budgets are overly reliant on petty infraction penalties because affluent, mostly white citizens have been engaged in a ‘tax revolt for decades.’” (Ibid pg. 45.)
I wish I had explained to my Hispanic friend that if our streets fester with the homeless, they exist because of our indifference. In America, we have made poverty a crime. But I said nothing. My cowardice and my silence became part of the problem.