Homelessness: The Plague Continues

Thus far my postings have focused on two of my prime interests: cooking and martial arts. What I call my two avocations since I write cookbooks and have been involved in the martial arts for over 35 years. Well, today I'm going on a different tangent. No pithy comments or recipes.

Recently, I was referred to an on-line site, invisiblepeople.tv. I found the site fascinating. What invisiblepeople.tv does is give homelessness a name and a face. It chronicles what being homeless is like in America today. The reason it peaked my interest is that my second novel, The Proud and the Immortal (Polar Bear and Company) focuses on this very topic. When I began work on the book my concern was not homelessness as such. I just wanted to tell a stark and vivid story of individuals trying to survive in late 20th century America. The book tells the story of a community of homeless individuals who lived, for a time, in the abandoned Amtrak tunnels beneath New York City. They formed a society in microcosm with its own rules and by-laws. My aim was not to romanticize or categorize homelessness, but rather described how it was, living in the tunnels, and how they endured. They weren't saints, nor angels, nor villains, just people trying to persevere like their counterparts who lived topside in the neighborhoods above the tunnels.

The worst sort of angst

(photo credit: Diane Lemieux)

I encountered these people one summer long ago when I was strolling around Riverside Park on the West Side of Manhattan. I noticed there were two groups that stuck to their turf on the huge rotunda in the park. One group was younger, more boisterous, and they indulged in smoking crack openly. The other group was older and more reserved. From their appearance they seemed down and out, and obviously homeless, but the younger ones did not mess with them. It seemed these people had a structure. I struck up a conversation with one of them, and that's when I discovered they lived in the tunnels. Eventually I gained their confidence enough so that they showed me where they lived. It was another world, almost like a parallel universe. And once you overcame the heat, and the smell, you realized that it was another home to them. For some, the only real home they ever had.

I hung out with them for about two months, visiting them when I could, and gathering enough information to form the basis of my novel. I came to realize that they, beyond the grueling surroundings, the uncertainties and constraints of living underground, harbored the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. They were just trying to get by, albeit in a squalid environment. Their stories fascinated me. And from it I weaved the characters that would eventually populate my novel. I consider it my best work.

The tunnels are long gone, but homelessness is not. Given the current financial crisis and long-lived recession, it probably has gotten worse. That's no surprise. According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report, hunger and homelessness are on the rise in the U.S., especially in our cities. The report revealed that, on average, cities reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2008, with 16 cities citing an increase in the number of homeless families. And, of course, poverty, unemployment and the lack of affordable housing are cited as the top three causes of homelessness and hunger in the surveyed cities.

Another report, this one by the National Center on Family Homelessness cited that 1 in 50 children in America are homeless each year. They summarize that, on a yearly basis, 1.5 million of our nation's children go to sleep without a home.

I could go on forever summarizing statistics and numbers, but who the hell cares? They're just that: numbers and statistics. It has been said that when one person dies, it's a tragedy, but when hundreds die it's a statistic. Nevertheless the plague is here and its coming home. We've got record foreclosures on homes, unemployment is heading toward double digits, and the economy is tanking. There are those who would never have dreamed of becoming homeless and are now facing it as a real possibility. It's safe to say that a lot of us are just a paycheck away from being on the streets. That's why I call homelessness a plague, a pestilence of epidemic proportions. Problem is, that for most of us, it's the unseen plague. Oh, yes, you've seen them on the streets, the "bag people" as they were once called, the mentally unbalanced man or woman who can't cope, the homeless veteran who left his brains back in the Mekong Delta or the Persian Gulf, or the average joe who just fell on hard times. What's amazing is that this is not a new phenomenon. It's been with us for quite a while. In 1547, the British parliament passed a law that subjected vagrants and vagabonds to two years of servitude and branding with a "V" as a penalty. After the American Civil War, a large number of men went on the road and formed that subculture known as "hobos." At one time, when I was a young man, the Bowery in New York was synonymous with homeless men and women. Today it's ringed with high-priced luxury condominiums. The Great Depression of the 1930's caused a marked increase in poverty and homelessness. But modern homelessness as we know it, is something new and pervasive. To my mind, one of the major incentives was the infamous Community Mental Health Act of 1963. What happened was this: long term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals and were supposed to be sent to community health treatment centers for follow-up treatment. It didn't work out that way. The majority of community mental health centers were never funded. The released patients found themselves on the street. Add to that the lack of affordable housing, the reduction in SROs (single room occupancy) and you had an increasing number of jobless and impoverished adults, children and teenagers roaming the streets. Given these circumstances, some groups, like the "Mole People" I write about in my novel, literally went underground and formed their own mini-communities. And, I would guess, now even those communities are gone.

So, what to do? More learned minds than mine have tackled the question. And no clear solution has been given. Although the problem has found its advocates, as it should. There are venues out there that are addressing this problem even as we speak. One of the sites I discovered while researching for this post, is Change.org. It is one of the leading sites for social change; and among its causes and issues is how to end homelessness. They have featured posts on such topics as the roots of contemporary homelessness, things you should know about homelessness and actions you can take to end same. All well and good but, my friends, more is needed. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are an estimated 3.5 million homeless people in the U.S. Imagine that, the strongest, richest country on the planet, and that's what we show to the world. It's obscene. It's criminal. It's not a question of the haves and have-nots, it's a question of the haves and those who have nothing. As one who has lived on both sides of the equation, I can tell you from experience, it's not easy promulgating the kind of change that is needed. We don't care. If we are doing well (at least those of us who still are in this economy) to us the homeless are, by and large, the nameless few. We see them on the street and we just pass them by, we avert our eyes, or, if we respond, it's with the usual epithet: "Go get a job, buddy!" Yeah, well try and get a good paying job in this economy---at least one that will put a home over your head when all you see around you are forced evictions and mortgage foreclosures. According to one of the posts I saw on-line, it's official: LA is the capital of homelessness. How long before New York or Houston or San Francisco, or Duluth or Toledo join that list?

So the next time you pass some homeless, destitute person on the street, look into their face, and you will see all of us.

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