Actually, we do it well, most of the time. When it's something a Kossack is facing, we're very generous. When it's a public policy issue, we're very good, and very critical of the politicians who are cutting support. We just get in trouble when we decide we're going to diary one of our own experiences with it. Even THEN we're mostly okay, when we're talking about what might be staring us in the face.
When we try to diary our encounters with homeless people, however, we don't do all that well. What's driving me to write is a diary that spent most of Sunday, 5/28, on the rec list, "To the homeless man who waited for the "walk" signal at the light," which had 394 recs the last time I looked. It seems that the minute someone writes a diary about how he or she did a good deed for a homeless person, a whole bunch of you flock to the diary and tell him or her how wonderful he or she is. You know, some of your fellow Kossacks like me HAVE experience with being homeless, and we know what it feels like to be patronized and condescended to, knowing that the patronizer and the condescender is going to tell people how wonderful the patronization and condescension made him or her feel.
So to my problem with how we talk about homeless people here. The problem is that you can't know what it's like -- actually, can't even imagine what it's like -- unless you have actually been homeless. This means we're in a dangerous area: sympathy is possible, but empathy is not. Follow me below the two-day old orange danish that we've found on top of the dumpster for an examination of the problem.
I haven't been particularly shy about explaining what the experience of homelessness is like from my perspective. The first self-revelatory comment I made on this subject was in a front-page diary about taking the food-stamp challenge. My contention was that doing it in a full kitchen might be the experience of some of the people who are entitled to them, but the more common experience involves a motel room with a small office-type refrigerator and a microwave, and you're not buying fresh stuff but frozen microwaveable food, probably from a 99 cent store. Fresh? Milk and eggs. Everything else? Frozen. This is the type of mistake you can make even if you're writing about your own existence. Food stamps with a full kitchen is pretty much paradise!
But the diarist who wrote about the food stamp challenge got most of the diary right. I didn't think this diarist had. I read the diary, and I read it again, and something was bothering me, but I couldn't figure out what it was, and then it hit me (the comment thread is here):
Your surprise that someone you assumed to be homeless wasn't insane. It runs through a lot of the comments, too -- this whole magnanimity thing, as if you're better than whoever it is you helped because you helped somebody. I've written before in comments about the homeless people you see every day that you don't recognize as homeless because they shave or otherwise maintain some sense of cleanliness and decorum. I've been one of those people. I didn't behave any differently because I was sleeping on park benches. You know what? You're all decent human beings. You don't have to show off in diaries like this. In my faith, charity is best when the recipient of charity doesn't know where it's coming from.Most of the comments that responded to mine disagreed politely, or suggested I had missed a silver lining. Then there was a comment about charities, and then someone lit into me. I think I was very temperate, but you know what? I'm a scold, I'm MEAN, I'm abusive, I'm an obnoxious moralist, and it's okay to namecheck me in a possibly HRable manner. The comment also suggested that MY self-disclosing comment would make people wonder if they should self-disclose. Are we all such delicate flowers that we won't self-disclose because -- heaven forbid -- someone might criticize us, even politely? When I recounted this in a subsequent diary, ironically about politeness, the same commenter was equally abusive in criticizing me. Apparently, since I'm mean and a scold, I asked for it.
Now, please allow me to destabilize your idea of what kind of people constitute "the homeless." We're varied, and the great mass of us are pretty much invisible (as I'm pretty sure the man crossing the street thought he was until our sharp-eyed Samaritan decided otherwise and acted on it for whatever reason, and I'll concede that the intentions behind said intervention were good).
Why are some of us scarier than others? You can blame Ronald Reagan for this. An article by Steven Roberts for the New York Times at the end of Reagan's second term Reagan on Homelessness: Many Choose to Live in the Streets, reports that he said (famously)
''[T]here are always going to be people'' who live in the streets by choice. "'They make it their own choice for staying out there,'' Mr. Reagan said in a farewell interview with David Brinkley of ABC News. ''There are shelters in virtually every city, and shelters here, and those people still prefer out there on the grates or the lawn to going into one of those shelters.''Well, of course. It's almost like Indian removal and its presumably voluntary nature: as a right-wing blog admits in an attempt to exonerate Reagan, in 1967,
Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), which went into effect in 1969 and quickly became a national model. Among other things, it prohibited forced medication or extended hospital stays without a judicial hearing. The Governor signed a bill inspired by those who clamored for the "civil rights" of the mentally ill to be on the street and who claimed they'd be better off with community counseling.Yes, it took a few years to become a national model and yes, Reagan was president when it did. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, maybe. Still, I suppose anecdotally, there were a lot more people on the streets in 1988 than there were in 1980.
Roberts went on to report that
Experts on the homeless agree with the President that many of them suffer from mental impairment, as well as drug addiction, alcoholism, and other personal problems that prevent them from functioning effectively and taking care of themselves.An insightful piece by Richard Florida for The Atlantic published in March 2012 confirms that little has changed during the past 14 years. Florida points out that the strongest correlations for homelessness by city are the cost of housing (.37) and the mean temperature (.47) -- the warmer the city, the more homeless per 10,000 people (see the map). Other social factors -- productivity, income, human capital, poverty, inequality -- not so much. He concludes
But a growing number of homeless people are healthy, and more than 20 percent hold full- or part-time jobs, according to the United States Conference of Mayors. For many, the fundamental problem is economic: housing costs that have risen beyond the means of people with menial jobs.
Homelessness affects far too many Americans, but it's a mistake to conflate it with crime or see it as a breeder of other social problems. It is not the exclusive province of large urban centers, but affects cities large and small, rich and poor alike.The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that in 2012 four major demographic groups are at risk
people living in “doubled up” situations (people who live with friends, family or other non-relatives for economic reasons, a population of 6.8 million in 2010), people discharged from prison, young adults leaving foster care, and people without health insurance.and assesses the chances that people in these groups will find themselves homeless:
The odds for a person in the general U.S. population of experiencing homelessness in the course of a year are 1 in 194.One more thing. There are people in these groups and in other groups that some of our politicians have decided are not worthy to participate in the social safety net. In general, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in December, states are balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor.
For an individual living doubled up the odds are 1 in 12.
For a released prisoner they are 1 in 13.
For a young adult who has aged out of foster care they are 1 in 11.
The number of people without health insurance increased by 4 percent from 47.2 million in 2009 to 48.8 million in 2010. Nationally, 1 out of every 6 people is uninsured.
By and large, the federal government has left it up to states to provide basic assistance to childless adults in need of assistance. While states have never provided significant support for this group, the safety net for these individuals has weakened significantly over the past two decades and continues to erode. This trend is especially troubling because of the persistently high levels of unemployment that make it particularly difficult for this group to find work. As a growing number of jobless and elderly exhaust their unemployment insurance benefits, poor childless adults are becoming even more vulnerable to severe hardship than in the past and are doing so in greater numbersAND, if you have a drug conviction, as the Legal Action Center reports, with very few exceptions, forget it.
It's ironic. The need for private charity is definitely there. In my faith, there's tzedakah, and there are definitely levels within it that the Talmud and the Mishneh Torah discuss. Here they are as codified by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, or Rambam) in 12th-century Spain in ascending order of virtue:
Increasingly anonymous until we get to the top level, and that level doesn't apply to any of your encounters with the homeless.
Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
Giving after being asked
Giving before being asked
Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant before he needs help.
You would think that here it would not amaze us that homeless people might be just like us, might just BE us. Not so. Ten years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich published a book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. It was VERY well received, and with good reason -- it's journalism as it should be done, giving us a window into the world that most of us don't live in. Of course there was criticism from the right, but there was another really interesting strain that criticized the anthropological aspects of Ehrenreich's investigation. Ehrenreich could walk out of any of her jobs whenever she wanted to, and the working poor she wrote about couldn't. There isn't really a counter-argument for that, outside the willing sense of disbelief you bring to anything you read.
The problem is compounded by the chance encounter this diary involved, and even in the diaries about working at a church soup kitchen. Yes, it feels good to you, and that's understandable -- you're outside your normal experience. The people you help, or who you serve, are in their normal experience. As a result, there's a disconnect in the writing.
I know this is a lot to absorb, but think about it when you decide that your encounter with a homeless person warrants a diary. When you think you can empathize with the homeless person whose life you touched and whose life touched you, please consider the idea that there, but for the intervention of cosmic grace or for the intervention of sheer blind luck, go I.
2:13 PM PT: Thank you, Community Spotlight. This is the most important diary I've written for Daily Kos, and I'm glad you found it worth rescuing.
6:40 PM PT: Edited to use "homeless" in my own writing as an adjective, per Catte Nappe's excellent suggestion. Yes, there are instances of "the homeless" but other people used the term, not me.
11:10 PM PT: The diary this is based on has been removed from Daily Kos, but that doesn't change anything I said about it. Beside, my problem wasn't with the diarist, it was with two people in the thread that resulted from my comment on the diary. This does not change the intent of this diary either.