A Perspective on the American Homeless Dilemma
I guess I don’t get out much anymore, not on foot anyway. But early this morning, a mishap with a container of super glue led to a sudden shopping trip for a bottle of nail polish remover. Since I recently revived my workout regimen, I decided to jog the half-mile or so to my local convenience store.
Knocking out two tasks in one step—that’s the way to get a good day started.
My home is close to the heart of downtown Long Beach, within a mile of million dollar properties along the South Bay shoreline. I can hear the speedy flow of city life from the front step of my duplex, and the view allows me to witness it. I see commuters and glimpses of stores and railways along with luxury high-rises and several mid-rise buildings being converted into expensive condominium complexes. Through the time I’ve spent at my favorite store in the area, Shades of Afrika, and in shops nearby, I’ve heard tales of city government invoking eminent domain as they usher corporate gentrification into the neighborhood, and small, independently owned businesses out.
Driving around the area, I have also learned that downtown Long Beach—like many downtown areas throughout America—is thick with homeless people. The image of glitzy capitalist success appears in stark contrast to the sights and sounds of homeless people, many of whom are mentally ill, and according to a new report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, twenty-five percent or more are veterans.
I’ve had several encounters with homeless people since I moved to this area. But the one that occurred during my jog from the store increased my indignation toward this society for boasting about being the richest nation on Earth and the moral compass of the modern world while allowing its highest rate of homelessness. I don’t know if I was more disgusted by a memory of the present administration’s empty promise of “compassionate conservatism” or the sight of a homeless elder standing on the corner of a busy intersection relieving himself.
But there he was, standing comfortably exposed while staring blankly forward, oblivious to, or in defiance of the world around him. When I witnessed a similar episode weeks ago, I was insulated by the distance of my driver’s seat and the image-blurring speed of a freeway on-ramp. But this time I didn’t have those protections. This time I jogged within a few feet of this elder and his natural urges.
As I made my way back home, I had a series of thoughts. I went from wanting to scream at that man, to accepting that my screams may not fully register with him. Then I realized that my protest could be met with a potentially violent response from him, reflecting resentment for a society that has so much, but cares so little for its elderly and vulnerable. Remembering empty promises toward “compassionate conservatism” almost made me sick, and I felt a sense of moral shame as I thought about this culture’s disdain for the elderly, and how every other message we hear is tinged with the admonition to “stay young.”
Then I wondered what that homeless elder’s name was, and whether his life story would provide some explanation for his condition. In fact, I wondered if he was a veteran as I thought about our government’s increasingly disavowed obligation to provide for people in need and veterans, especially after their mind, body, and souls have been mutilated on the battlefield. A sudden memory of George W. Bush proclaiming that he prays before issuing orders to bomb foreign lands rankled my spirit and reminded me how American leaders have misused and abused religion throughout this country’s history.
Even though this is not “officially” a Christian nation, it is a de facto Christian nation due to distorted claims of founding colonial principles and the inability of other religions to share the privileges enjoyed by Christians in this land. That reminded me of Jesus’ teachings on the way people should treat “the least of them” (Matthew 25:34-46), and I can’t help but wonder what He would say about bombs dropping after prayer, and the vast number of people living on American streets. My understanding says He wouldn’t be pleased with our leaders. But Jesus also wouldn’t be pleased with the Christian masses who stand idly by while this sickness grows around us.
This nation’s loose, official relationship with Christian doctrine precludes our leaders from being held to its highest principles. Instead, our government is and always has been a confused nest of corporate interests focusing on the bottom line with little more than exploitive regard for the working masses, and even less concern for the homeless. Since that is the cold, cruel reality of life on these shores, my thoughts shifted when it occurred to me that Thomas Jefferson may have been on to something when he stated in Notes on the State of Virginia that:
“…I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep for ever…”
Indeed, “justice cannot sleep forever,” but it will sleep indefinitely until righteous people climb out of from their slumber. Since God works through people, it is our responsibility to rise above the “personal prosperity” message from the modern church to create a broad and conscientious movement for social justice and change, much like our parents and grandparents did forty years ago.
After all, somewhere I read that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:18-26), and though I make a daily practice of giving “a little change” to anyone who asks for it, I realize that it will take more than that to alter the patterns in this nation that give rise to homeless elders standing exposed on street corners. Only the collective moral outrage and righteous indignation of the American masses will change the deteriorating conditions that exist, if not in our own homes, then certainly within a short jog outside of our front doors.
Mshujaa Komoyo (Harold L. Baker, Jr.) n is an engineer and freelance writer living in Long Beach, CA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.