America and Its Half Million Homeless Ghosts

America and Its Half Million Homeless Ghosts March 23, 2015

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by David Poe
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by David Poe

Foxes have dens, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head. Jesus Christ

Sprinklergate, the story that the Cathedral of St Mary in San Francisco was using its sprinkler system to clear the cathedral steps of homeless people, is a symptom of a big-time problem.

That problem is that American cities are haunted by over a half million ghosts. These ghosts sleep on park benches, sidewalks and in shelters. They panhandle and go through dumpsters, searching for clothing, food, money, drugs.

These are not silent ghosts. They accost us as we walk to work, they wave signs begging for cash as we drive down the road. They take over the public libraries and, as St Mary’s has discovered, can block entrances to buildings with their vacant-eyed vigils.

The ghosts haunting American cities are the homeless. They are not in any way homogenous. Some of them are temporary down and outs. Others are mentally ill. Many are drug addicts and alcoholics. Others are panhandlers posing as homeless while they ply their trade.

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by davejdoe
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by davejdoe

Homelessness is the opposite of the American dream. It is the opposite of what, until a few decades ago, was the American self-image. I am old enough to remember a time when America did not have homeless people lying on its park benches, snoring in its libraries and blocking the entrances to its churches.

I was born in that era between the Great Depression with its hobos and today with our ubiquitous and ignored homeless.

America’s basic response to homelessness among so many of its citizens, including many children, has been to ignore them. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development issues a glossy report on the homeless every year. This report differentiates between types of homelessness. There are the homeless who stay with relatives, and are not, to my way of thinking, truly homeless at all.

Then there are those who sleep in shelters or whatnot. Finally, we get to the homeless that inspire us to such conflicting feelings of pity, indifference and annoyance, those who do not have shelter at all.

In the meantime, while we ignore the homeless, and refuse to even take a look at the government policies and social changes that made them homeless, we shift the burden for dealing with them onto whoever the homeless themselves chose to impose themselves upon.

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Alex Barth
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Alex Barth

Businesses, public buildings of all sorts, churches and other facilities can easily find themselves unable to perform their intended functions because of the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks at their entrance or sitting inside their buildings. Mothers won’t bring the kiddos to the library if the homeless take it over. Guests won’t check into hotels whose entrances are blocked or whose lobbies are filled with homeless people. Churches can’t hold services if the worshippers stay away rather than step over the homeless, sitting on the steps.

We ignore the homeless because we feel helpless to do anything decisive for them. We ignore them because we don’t truly understand what policies and practices of political and social corruption made them homeless in the first place. We ignore the homeless because they overwhelm us and baffle us and scare us.

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by David Hood
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by David Hood

Worse, we ignore them because if we acknowledged that many of our political and social ideas on both sides of the political spectrum have created this problem and allowed it to grow, it would require us to re-evaluate many of our simplistic viewpoints. We ignore the homeless because not ignoring the homeless would require us to change.

So, we dump them.

We dump them on the businesses and operators of public buildings. We dump the problem on the administrators of these businesses, public buildings and churches. Then, when they take any action to dislodge the homeless from camping out on their property and blocking access and use by those for whom it was intended, we excoriate these administrators for their heartlessness.

This public venting of moral outrage has nothing to do with compassion. It is just us, being our hypocritical selves about a problem we will not do anything to solve. We will not take a homeless person home and house them in our spare bedroom. We will not let them sleep on our porch. We will not change our politics to fit the realities of real life.

We will ignore them and what brung them.

They are not people to us. They are ghosts of what once was people like us. Somebody birthed them, taught them to write those signs they hoist and how to read the hours of operation on the signs in front of public buildings.

They were once part of the larger society.

But now they are ghosts.

And we ignore them.

And we denounce those on whom we dump them for being overwhelmed by them.

And we will not change.

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13 responses to “America and Its Half Million Homeless Ghosts”

  1. Rebecca, I think one of the huge causes of homelessness is mental illness. When you give the mentally ill the right to do whatever they want, they do just that. I have a personal relationship with someone in this condition. She will not stay in anyone’s house because she is paranoid schizophrenic. Btw, she has had five children, all removed and never in her custody.
    The second group is composed of people who have drug and alcohol problems, but, mainly, they do not want to follow anybody’s rules. I also have personal experience with a person in this group. He would stay in your house for a while, until you started missing lots of things. If you allowed it he would steal everything in your house. He was a skilled tradesman, in demand, but he preferred to live rough, steal when he had to and do as he pleased.
    There is help for those who have had setbacks. Our parish sponsors them to help restart their lives. We also run a feeding program. Most of the clients are regulars. They live off these handouts, some staying in shelters at night, some in the street.
    In Honolulu, on Waikiki there is a park completely occupied by people who live in their cars and in little tents. They drink when they can get away with it, smoke lots of marijuana and hang out, playing music, talking, whatever, for free. That’s what they want.
    When you were younger vagrancy was a crime. You spent time in jail and were not allowed to sleep on the streets or in parks.
    There were mental facilities and the mentally ill were hospitalized, period.
    So, I’m not sure who these ghosts you refer to are.

  2. I don’t usually agree with FW but I do today. I was what nicer folks called an ltinerant and the police referred to as a vagrant from 17 to 23. I never thought of myself as homeless, just that my home moved, often daily. It was a different World and the homeless are a different subculture. The homeless today need more help than then and get a lot less. A lot. It’s too bad. I don’t see things changing anytime soon. If you do any more than pass them a little spending money, a kind word or a meal, you can be seen by law as the responsible party if those you aid harm themselves, others or the property of others.

  3. We don’t help the mentally ill or those with substance abuse problems for that matter. Remember a huge number of homeless people are vets. Their mental illnesses and their substance abuse problems where cause in great part due to where our country and our government sent them.

  4. I’ve seen a study that veterans make up a lower percentage than the general population. Can’t find the study right now. There are a lot of resources for homeless vets.
    There are a lot of homeless people who claim to be vets who are not.

  5. Btw, there are mental health facilities that even homeless people have access to. They do not want to take medications, go to appointments, in other words they are noncompliant. They have the legal right to be noncompliant. I wish they did not. One of the diagnostics of mental illness is lack of insight and they exhibit that.
    I think the only solution for over half of the population is enforced living arrangements.

  6. The sad truth is that some people have life events that make it really hard to survive in an economy with few low rungs on the ladder. Some of these people lose hope, and end up in a semi-permanent state of dependency. When we close mental institutions and the jails fill up, there is no other recourse than the streets.

    I have always wanted to do something about that- create a city based on older manual labor agriculture, the type anybody can do. Then offer a service to transport the homeless out of the capitalist big cities, and to such a small agricultural community.

  7. People during the depression were all much worse off than the average person today, however, the difference between then and now is that when people could not provide for themselves, family helped with that responsibility. Another big difference is that people also did not have the feeling of entitlement that people have today. It’s all about responsibility, and that means being responsible for family and responsible for ones’ self as well. My parent’s grew up during the depression, and they very clearly communicated to me how that people today have more tendency toward entitlement and that families are not teaching the need to take care of each other as well as personal responsibility. People take a look at recent history before you make any of these rash statements on how the government is responsible for the welfare of everyone.

  8. So where to go from here? I have no idea.
    When I worked in a coffee shop on Main Street in a modest-sized New England city. I learned in a hurry who the local “homeless” were. They’d come in for a cup of coffee, and we’d talk. Most of them didn’t want the community services aside from the local soup kitchen. About half were vets who were estranged from their families. I heard from several of them whose “home” was a sheltered area in a local park that they were happy there and didn’t like all the rules at the local shelter. I didn’t know what to do for them besides listen. Mental illness and substance abuse were no doubt factors in the lives of some of the folks I met – and it might have been that very illness that kept them from wanting to accept even the few community services available.
    You’re right. I feel helpless.

  9. i think the posters who discuss mental illness are on the mark. The courts have ruled that the homeless, mentally ill, etc. cannot be involuntarily institutionalized except in very limited circumstances. In addition, Ms. Hamilton’s memory is incorrect. We have always had the homeless; there was never a time when they weren’t present.

  10. We view them as flawed human beings, as failures. But it is our inability to connect with that humanity – that precarious human condition…… that is flawed. They remind us of the ugliness of life and what can potentially happen to any one of us. So, we ignore them. It’s too much to come face to face with when you see the hopelessness and desperation on their faces. Wish we could move past our pride and step out into compassion and empathy. Yes, it’s true, many are mentally ill, on drugs, suffer from depression, addiction. With that said, do you know anyone who doesn’t have some kind of mental issue or an addiction? I bet you do. Btw, we are ranked 37 in health care in the world. That should speak volumes as to why we can’t do the right thing for people who are in great need of social services. We can’t even help people who are middle class and need medical care!!! Wealth changes everything. It’s ok to be a train wreck if you have $$$, but if you’re a homeless drunk, or drug addict, you’re to be pitied and despised. We need to wake up, reach out to the homeless, and give them back their dignity. Perhaps we might find a little bit of our own in the process.

  11. John, I don’t know about you, but our parish has a brown bag ministry that goes into town from the burbs weekly with 3 meals. We collect all sorts of stuff and we host the homeless one week a month. We also have lots of interventions so those who want help can get it.
    I, personally, know 2 homeless people very well. Family, friends, Church have gone to extreme, very expensive lengths to help. They reject that help or any help.
    I think it is time to quit being sentimental. These people are made in the image of God and are our responsibility, but we may have to violate their free wills to actually help them.
    One last thing, those studies about how bad our health care is are crap. People in our country can get what they must have. In other countries ranked higher, you get what the govt says you may have.

  12. Anne, the info. about us being 37th in healthcare is factual. I didn’t just make this number up. You can look it up in your spare time. As Christians, we have to explain why people who get cancer and have no insurance, lose their homes in the process. Do you have an explanation as to why more babies born into our fabulously accessible healthcare system die…more so than in some third world countries? I don’t know about you, but I believe every citizen has a right to healthcare. Why is this practically the only country in the world who denies its citizens this basic human right? If one is on ObamaCare, they still have to cough up $$. Healthcare is not accessible for everyone. You are to be commended for what you do at your church for the homeless. May God reward you.

  13. I’ll take what the Gov gives, you can have your freedom, Thanks. Here in Thailand, health care is free to all the Thai People, I must pay, but its so cheap I have good care at the Gov hospitals. If I were in USA I’d be dead or homeless without medical care. SHAME ON AMERICA’S FREEDOMS. AnneG shame on you for your ignorant uncaring. You don’t violate their free will by inviting one or two home for a hot meal and a bed for one night.