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Callous Toward the Homeless

4 Jan

Nearly every day I see people begging here in the Willamette Valley. They stand on street corners and at freeway exits holding barely readable tattered cardboard signs. They wander up and down the streets of towns large and small asking for spare change. They line up outside shelters for food and a bed for a night.

Like most people most of the time, I don’t pay them too much attention. I’ve become callously indifferent toward the homeless.

When I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s and walked from the Polk Gulch neighborhood to my office downtown, I’d put a big handful of quarters in my pocket and hand out one or two in response to the requests for spare change. By the time I got to work a half hour later, my pocket would be empty. I doubt that I saved anyone on those urban treks, but I doubt I did any harm either.

In 2007 it was estimated that more than 650,000 people in the United States were chronically homeless. The government’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said that in 2009 1.5 million individuals spent at least one night without a home to sleep in. According to another survey, more than 19% of the homeless are military veterans. That same report shows that 55% of homeless people are afflicted with disabilities, yet barely 25% have some kind of health insurance. And more than half of those on the streets have no source of income, hence the begging.

It’s only going to get worse. As jobs become scarce in this country and politicians chip away at social services, Social Security, and Medicare, expect homelessness to grow. In fact, given the arrival of Baby Boomers into senior citizen status, it’s estimated that the number of  homeless among the elderly will expand 33% in the coming decade.

Guilt-ridden individuals will not solve homelessness one handout at a time. The solution, if there is one, must come from a large-scale government effort. But our political leaders have little concern about the homeless because they are not as powerful a constituency as, say, millionaires who demand tax breaks. Sadly, there’s little hope for the homeless.

On occasion, especially on a cold day like today, I’ll roll down the window of my heated car and hand over a dollar or two to a beggar who claims to be homeless. Although I know it’s unlikely that my meagre contribution can turn their lives around, I still do it. And, yes, I realize I can get scammed by those who are not in such dire straits. But I don’t worry about the loss of a couple bucks to a petty crook. Mostly, I worry about the loss of my sense of empathy toward my fellow human beings.