“The need is great but what can I do?” That’s the response I got after talking to a guy who worked at a hospital I was visiting that I had brought a local homeless man in to. The hospital maintenance man was changing light fixtures as we talked. “Besides, with all the corruption and bureaucracy out there, it doesn’t seem like anything has changed or will change for the better regardless of how much good a person does to change it.” “So you’re saying you’re a defeatist therefore that absolves you from human compassion?” I asked. The staffer stopped what he was doing and stared at me with a guilty look on his face.
My question pretty much ended the conversation but I was hoping the guy could explain why he had the attitude he so freely espoused just a few minutes before. Pointing out the obvious would be to state that of course the need is great and the reason it is growing is due to several factors including lack of living wage jobs, affordable housing and the rising costs of living. Add to this delay tactics inherent in bureaucracy, budget cuts and blaming the poor for being poor and you will have a seemingly insurmountable problem. The more conversations I have with people about homelessness and homeless people, the more I learn how deeply preconceived notions have been ingrained into the public’s mind which in turn, gets translated into people excusing judgmental attitudes or making excuses for being apathetic and not getting involved.
Poverty affects everyone’s finances, health and mental well-being so why wouldn’t you want to do something to make your community a better place to live? You can’t sit on your butt and gripe about all the ills of the society we live in while doing nothing about it and expect things to change. Passing the buck doesn’t absolve anyone from being inactive and I have seen people who claim they aren’t that way do exactly that….nothing!
I have seen and lived the reality of ill-informed people in positions of policy making when it comes to social services and community involvement and they all have the same thing in common: a lack of acute consequences for their failure. Homeless folks feel the brunt of cutbacks, lack of services and bad policy decisions IMMEDIATELY. Homelessness doesn’t end when a social worker clocks out for the day. It doesn’t stop after a crisis call either. Homelessness goes on during long waiting lists, bans and city ordinances targeting “homeless behavior”. Telling homeless people to just get a job is a blaring testimony to being out of touch with the realities of homeless life. If you think all homeless people need to get out of homelessness is a job then consider this: what do you put down for an address on a job application? Not everyone has an agency or personal friend to sponsor a residential address for homeless folks to use to get mail at which in turn can also be used to prove residency for some programs. Did you know you can’t get a PO Box without a residential address? The post office will ask you for proof of a physical address in the form of a copy of a mortgage or insurance policy with a residential address on it plus a valid id with the same address listed. The same goes for private mailboxes. If you don’t have an id or driver’s license (many homeless don’t) then you have a barrier to accessing other things that require having one.
For me, reaching out to local homeless folks trying to get on their feet isn’t a hobby; it’s a natural response to knowing what it’s like to be homeless longer than anyone should be even while working two jobs and then dealing with the after effects of a stroke. During that time I have seen the economy collapse and at the same time, systematic stripping of a once strong safety net social services used to be. Local organizations have picked up their pace the best they can to help their communities but the reality is that they cannot afford to alleviate widespread poverty or provide homelessness prevention help. I suppose I could be like everybody else and adopt a careless attitude towards others who find themselves in hard times but…… the need is great.