On chilly wet Sunday morning in early December I was in the social hall at the Catholic parish I attend. This is the “Coffee and Doughnuts” hour which I normally do not attend. However, I was there to help sell Christmas cards for the Knights of Columbus which promotes “Keep Christ in Christmas” with cards that have your standard manger scenes with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and so forth. Sales were slow because people just don’t send cards these days. Those who do generally e-mail a photo of them super-imposed on a background of bells and evergreen and the words “Happy Holidays from Your Name Here.”

We do not make much in the way of personal connections anymore, which may explain the unexpected reunion with a man I met at this same church at the beginning of the decade. I do not remember his name, but the meeting confirmed what I feared was going to happen to him. He was gaunt, ashen colored skin, dirty, scruffy, in short, he was homeless. He wore glasses when I met him, but now he was without and then straining to read the bulletin. From what I could deduce, he did not have many years left. He was a young man who would soon be discarded from a society that has become increasingly impersonal and ideologically divided. Modern technology has allowed us to “advance” although we are not sure what we are “advancing” toward. We have a large constituency of religious conservatives who want to return to “traditional family values”, but I am not counting on them for solutions. They seem to follow a Health and Wealth Gospel that views poverty as a sin and that God rewards his followers “saved by the Blood of the Lamb” with material prosperity.

Religious organizations (usually the more “liberal” and, therefore, not “orthodox”) provide a great deal of help for the homeless as well as advocacy for change to address the root causes of homelessness and poverty. Unfortunately, they generally are not paid attention to or even ridiculed. Many American Catholics, especially the ones who refer to themselves as “orthodox” would prefer to venerate Antonin Scalia rather than Dorothy Day. People like Dorothy Day or the Barrigan brothers were “radical socialists” because the “free market” is supposedly some Divine institution. If you DARE criticize American capitalism you are told to look at Venezuela as if there were only two options. If that doesn’t work, they will accuse of being jealous of someone else’s wealth.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, homelessness existed in other countries like India, Mexico and Brazil, or so I thought. Yes, there was a transient or two in “the big city,” but “tent cities” were the stuff of history, like the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression. This began to change in the 1980s with the closing of mental health institutions along with the breakdown of what used to a more just distribution of wealth. Today, nearly EVERY place has its homeless residents, including Bainbridge Island where there is a small tent city close to where I live. Homelessness is one of my greatest fears, and this is not “irrational” as people have tried to assure me.

When you have the level of homelessness that we are experiencing, you are in denial if you think this can all be due to “lack of moral character” or even due to mental illness and addiction. My belief is that people do this as a form of self-protection. If homelessness is due solely to bad choices and failure to take responsibility, then homelessness will not happen to them, especially if they are “saved.” This logic should be familiar to students of history. In Victorian England (as well as in the United States during the same period), reformers, made up generally of the well-to-do, the poverty in the newly industrialized cites, was due to alcohol, idleness, and other “character” flaws. Only the “radicals” among the working classes addressed the real cause of poverty and accompanying crime, namely, exploitation by the industrialists in terms of starvation wages and poor working conditions. To challenge the real culprits would bring damnation for daring to challenge the “natural order” of sacred capitalism.

So, what are the solutions? First, more social spending and “handouts” is more of the same, and more of the same will not do. This can create a sense of “learned helplessness”, and this is not due to a lack of a moral character. It is based on the very “virtue” that is viewed as making capitalism “sacred”, which is self-interest. People who are homeless are the ones who were thrown into the world and unable to make his or her way in it. Exacerbating this is this slow dissolution of social bonds, the rapid advancement in technology which has eliminated many working-class jobs, the increasing gap between wealthy members of the executive / technology class and the working classes who are mostly in the lower paying service industries, and the deindustrialization of our economy and the decades long decimation of the “middle class”. A sense of hope and the possession of self-assurance are the inevitable casualties of being discarded by society as an unwanted and unneeded “externality”.

People who are homeless have only one goal in their lives, survival. Getting something to eat, something to drink, shelter from the elements, and maybe a chance for a way to clean the body and hair of weeks of dirt, grime and dead skin consumes every waking hour. Drugs and alcohol are indulged in for the sole purpose of numbing the pain and distracting the brain. Handouts don’t lead to hope, they are simply pennies from heaven to help survive. What they need is self-confidence and a sense of belonging to the world, and this requires more than “tough love.” It requires a world that includes them rather than discards them. If we view “self-interest” and “advancement” whose direction is controlled solely by the gifted “creative” class that requires a level of intelligence most of us do not possess nor are likely to ever possess. I know this personally because, while I am not homeless, I have lived a life where I find myself just “one step ahead” of encroaching technology. Hope and dreams are the stuff of the past. The “New Economy” is so far advanced from my mental capacities has put me in survival mode. The solutions require a change of priorities, a change of values, and an infusion of confidence so that everyone can feel that he or she has a place in the world and a reason for living.

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