The more I experience the struggle of simply staying alive every day, the angrier I get. America’s priorities, far too many of its politicians, and even a disturbing number of our everyday folks, are brutal – and brutish – about how to deal with homeless people like me who have lost everything except our dignity: Forget we even exist.
In America, the Republican Party and the phony Astroturf “tea party” movement backing it with corporate cash, organization and a yowling media voice on right wing radio and Fox News, is so focused on self-absorbed greed that it has lost sight of everyone who’s not rich, white, male, straight, established and content. Indeed, conservatives keep demonstrating how totally indifferent they are to anyone whose life has taken an unfortunate turn. Mostly, they’d like us to go away quietly.
The homeless do not have a voice, on the streets or in Congress, but we are too visible to ignore: We’re in every city, town, village, hamlet and burgh as well as along a lot of country dirt roads. We may be overlooked but there is no way of saying “Problem? What problem? There’s no problem here!” Hungry kids, abused spouses, struggling parents working multiple jobs, the unemployed, people trapped in poverty and students who cannot afford the post-secondary education that would give them a leg up, may be out of mind but we are not out of sight.
Instead, Republicans blame us for bringing on our own problems. They love to talk about how providing assistance will only make us lazy and unwilling to pull ourselves up out of the gutter and into a home. This argument gets repeated regularly in the Op-Ed columns of Very Serious Newspapers such as The New York Times.
Robert Royal, the diffident president of the ultra-conservative Catholic group Faith and Freedom Institute, appeared on Moyers and Company last week with Sister Simone Campbell, one of the nuns who made a cross-country bus tour to spotlight problems of the poor, hungry and homeless. Royal, who openly supports Rep. Ryan’s plan to dismantle the remaining tatters of America’s safety net, actually said out loud that government help discourages the needy from helping themselves.
Royal also claimed with no evidence whatsoever that churches will take up the slack left by cutting government programs such as food stamps. But Bread for the World, a group battling hunger globally including in the US, calculates that every synagogue, church, mosque, temple and meeting hall in America would have to raise an extra $50,000 each every year for 10 years just to replace the money being cut from food stamps alone. This is in addition to money they already raise for charitable work.
I’m not a Catholic but my reading of Pope Benedict’s encyclical on poverty calls for governments to do a lot more to take care of the poor. For Royal to claim his – and Paul Ryan’s – position is in line with church teachings begs belief.
As a presidential candidate, an unbelievably arrogant Mitt Romney proclaims proudly “I don’t worry about those people” meaning me and all of the others in the same situation as I am in. Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, actually has the gall to say government assistance will discourage us from trying to improve our situation.
The Republican majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, scolds us for not having a home, and for being out of work, out of money and out of hope as he leads the charge to short-circuit measures to extend unemployment benefits for men and women who have been out of work for two years or more, and who will be on the streets soon if they aren’t already.
It is easy for editorial writers, Sunday morning talking heads from the punditocracy, and politicians to demagogue on the hapless because to do otherwise would recognize that relatively few of us out here chose the life we’re now living. And, frankly, far too many Democrats, even those who are considered progressives, give little more than a nod at a massive national disgrace, while “centrist” members of the party in Congress and state houses don’t give a damn.
When Robert F. Kennedy was challenging Lyndon Johnson in 1968, he championed the cause of the underdog, making the issues of poverty, homelessness and hunger central to his effort to wrestle the party’s nomination away from a sitting president. Knowing how to draw national attention to an issue, Bobby took his campaign and the news media covering it deep into Kentucky’s back country where people lived in tarpaper shacks with precious little food in the cupboard, and bathed in a bucket on the porch after using an outhouse for a toilet.
Writer Dee Davis, who was just a kid when Kennedy showed up in his tiny Kentucky hill country community, told NPR in 2007, “I stood there looking through the window, me and the national press corps, and I realized that the whole country was going to see it … A short time later, Kennedy was gone and so were those rough houses. (They were) replaced by sturdy, subsidized homes.”
Please Show Up
Showing up is the first step in fixing the problem.
Bobby Kennedy knew that. Yet no one even imagines that Romney, the ultimate upper class twit, will talk about addressing the plight of the homeless except to insist through a twisted bit of faulty logic that if we would simply cut the tax rates paid by the very rich one more time, the country could help the very poor.
But is it too much to ask President Obama to turn up at a homeless shelter some evening to focus national attention on a national shame? Planning this sort of campaign stop would drive the Secret Service batshit crazy but establishing security in an unsecure place is its job. If the president can travel to a war zone such as Afghanistan and be protected, he can go to an economic war zone in the United States to highlight an American disgrace.
As a purely political matter, many people who support Pres. Obama live in just such a war zone every day. The rest of the nation damn well needs to see how we struggle to get by.
The maddening thing is that this is a problem that’s cheap to solve.
In an era when conservatives insist that America must subject itself to extreme austerity in order to get out of the recession – ironically, a severe disaster that continues to hang on like a bad cough that was caused by the very economic and political policies conservatives tout despite the fact they haven’t worked anywhere they’ve been tried – homelessness costs less to fix than to let continue.
This could be a potent political issue for Democrats to grab. Before he was assassinated, Kennedy was on the verge of toppling Johnson by talking constantly about using government to eliminate poverty, hunger, homelessness and the other problems facing so many of our fellow countrymen. He struck a chord that resonated deep within the generous American soul, and not just with left wing hippie Commie do-gooders.
Yes, times are different and Kennedy’s campaign was more than 40 years ago. But America’s prosperity was more widespread in 1968 than it is today so, if anything, the problems of the poor and homeless are more severe and pronounced, and it is more difficult to draw the country’s attention.
To Pres. Obama and any other politician with a conscience, including my own representatives, Keith Ellison in Congress, and Senators Klobuchar and Franken: Please show up. It’s the first step to leading the country to where it needs to be to start fixing this hideous problem.
Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles