Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Ever since I lived in Boston I have made it a habit to purchase the local paper produced by the homeless organization. In Boston it was Spare Change and here in Albany we now have Big News, which migrated up from NYC. There is always an ad in the paper listing the clothing supplies needed for the clients the organization serves. And it strikes me just how much I take for granted my own life and lifestyle. I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, good clothes on my back, not to mention two stereos, two computers, a car and other luxuries. But for a slight change in fortune I might be the person on the corner begging for spare change or a cup of coffee.
Until I moved to St. Louis for law school, I had only ever heard of homelessness on the news. On Cape Cod we did have a few homeless people but they were all but invisible to me. Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet some of our homeless people in the different cities I have lived in. I have met kind, intelligent, talented and witty people. People who could put a smile on my face on a blustery Boston afternoon in the rain.
I have never bought into the notion that people are homeless because of some character flaw, and I think those who do only have such a view because they do not know any homeless people. And it seems to me that there is something profoundly wrong with a society that tolerates homelessness. I realize that some people on the streets are there from the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill and others are too young to have been victims of that policy change but suffer from mental illness themselves. The convergence of mental illness and homelessness makes for polarizing debates with intense passions on either side. My own opinion is that we as a society owe it to individuals who suffer from mental illness to provide adequate treatment and shelter.
And to those who are homeless for other reasons we owe social programs that will lift them up from poverty. We owe them housing programs that will put a roof over their head. We owe them quality schools for their children so they may succeed, and job training programs for those who lack the skills to compete. But most of all we owe them an apology for ignoring their plight for so long.
Unfortunately we have a political leadership that places more value on handouts to coporations, pork to well connected donors and tax give aways to the wealthiest Americans. How sad that a country founded on a commitment to "promote the general welfare" has so lost its way.


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