the Scary Homeless

Did you ever get the urge to yell out your car window, “Get a job!”?

That happened to me once, back when I was a long-haired teen.  I was walking home through the suburbs.  The car zipped off before I could even see who it was.

Funny thing – I had a job.  I worked as a dish washer in a chain restaurant, often putting in overtime and being kept well past midnight.

Sometimes people just want a target for their anger.  They are happy to draw their own conclusions, make assumptions, or even fabricate stories just to have a target.

So… let’s talk about the Homeless.

I bet some of you will see a homeless person and think, maybe even say, get a job.  And know what?  I agree with you!  Well, that is to say, there are individuals who probably should do just that.  I have no doubt – actually, I personally know from experience – that not only are there people who “take advantage” of various social services, but that there are homeless people who are fully capable of working.

At the same time, saying get a job makes it sound just as easy as pulling on a pair of socks.

Worse, it’s never said to be helpful, never with the best of intentions.  It’s not some plea muttered by a perceptive humanitarian who has seen past the veil of homelessness into an individual’s heart.  Let’s face it: when we think (or say) these things, we’re really just hurling bolts of anger.  We are kind of kicking someone while they’re down.  In my opinion, kicking someone who is already down, that’s among the worst kinds of bullying.

Secondly, while some people are taking advantage of systems or could be working, let’s be really honest about this: any given individual that we talk to, well… we just don’t know what their particular circumstances are.  There are homeless people who are trying to get a job.  There are others who can’t work, for any number of reasons.  Without discovering an individual’s personality, even if they are physically capable, we can’t know what sorts of barriers they have.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s just damned hard to get a job if you are living in the streets (or a shelter).  But hey, why think of any homeless person as an individual?  it’s easier to lump a group of people together and pretend they are all the same, with the same problems, the same capacities and the same challenges.

Let’s be honest, let’s talk about the real message, the one we mean but aren’t saying: your problem ain’t my problem.  LEAVE ME ALONE!

As ‘Mericans (read: US Citizens), we tend to be Convenient Individualists.

When it suits us, our ethics are all about the social good.  When it suits us, we are strident in our individualism.  For example, “These homeless people are ruining *our* neighborhood!”  Or even better, “No one wants homeless people around!”  See?  Representing society at large.  Well done!  How about one more: “Homeless people should get a job!”  That’s a great example of socially applied ethics.  Not only are we declaring (implicitly) that all homeless people are the same, but we are deciding for them what they should do.  Why?  Because we know what’s right for our society as a whole.

Then again, we are eager to wash our hands of it, (conveniently) becoming instant individualists: “It’s not my problem.”  How about “I got a job, why don’t they?”  Even better: let’s just lock ourselves inside our houses and apartments and pretend like the homeless don’t exist; or walk by, and act as if we don’t contribute to the problem ourselves.

What?  Did that shock you?  Yes, I implied that you contribute to the problem.  I know it goes against your Convenient sense of Individualism.  How could you have contributed, when you are just minding your own business and living your life?

You don’t get how you contribute, because you aren’t asking the right questions.

You’re so busy exonerating yourself, and telling people what they should do and where they should do it (preferably far away from you), that you aren’t looking at the big picture.  You think that each homeless individual is solely to blame for their circumstances, and that collectively they are a big inconvenience in your life.

Ok.  That’s fine.

I just want to ask you something, and it will require you to use your imagination a bit.  How much money does the government shift around every day?

Of course I don’t know.  But I know it’s a lot.  Follow up question: think of your ten most well known brands – let’s go with Target, Wal-Mart, maybe throw in McDonald’s… pick some more of your favorites.  Now ask yourself the same question: how much money do they earn in a single day?  What about one week?

I’m not done.  Right.  Now, if you add those two numbers together – the total amount of cash flow the government swirls around in a day, and the total of those ten companies, in just one day mind you, well… if you’re being realistic, you should be somewhere with a whole lot of zeros.

Now I want you to think about how many smart people have great jobs.  Really, really smart people.  Harvard grads, economists, politicians, scientists, lawyers, etc.  Keep in mind that most of those really really smart people with really really great jobs are probably working in high level government positions or for those same top companies.  Interesting, ain’t it?

Here’s the last piece.  If you take all that money from a single day, and you take, let’s say, a handful of those smart people, do you honestly think that they couldn’t create, develop, divine, intuit, generate, mold or whatever clever word you want, some program or initiative, to meaningfully change the state of homelessness in ‘Merica?

The truth is, folks – strap in for this one – if people wanted to solve the issues of homelessness, if it was at all important to any of them, then they would solve it.  The resources are there.  The minds are there.

They don’t solve it because they don’t want to.

And it’s not just because they don’t want to lose a single day’s earnings – although, that’s probably part of it.  The other thing is, they continue to not solve it because, hey, you don’t care, either.

If you want to know why homelessness exists, you can’t understand it by staring daggers at people on the street and blaming everyone.  You have to ask yourself, why does our society allow it to exist?  What function does it serve?  What do people in power, and people with crap-tons of money, gain by the presence of the homeless?

Well… what happens to you when you see a homeless person?  What happens to kids?  What is the impact of the homeless on the decisions of the average ‘Merican?

Homeless People are Scary as hell.  Aren’t they, though?  We don’t want to touch them, we don’t want to get near them, and we sure don’t want to join them.

This is a powerful tool to control and influence the decisions and directions of a Nation.  Fear of homelessness means we, the struggling masses, are willing to put up with and do things that we might not otherwise do, if we didn’t have that fear in the back of our heads.

Oh, you think I’m full of it?  I’m betting you’ve heard the phrase “you don’t want to end up homeless” being bandied about.  Maybe you’ve even thought it, or said it.

Fear of homelessness is one of the factors that makes it easier to get people to work lame jobs for less than living wages.  It keeps people in line – we even use it in stories to punish characters, both real and imagined.

If there was almost no homelessness, do you think people might aim higher in general?  Do you think they might take more risks in life?  I like to think we would have more artists of all kinds.  How many parents tell their kids that if they chase being an artist (visual, musical, literary, any kind) they will end up poor or homeless?

If there’s no homelessness, maybe when someone job hunts, they won’t settle for less money than they actually want.  They know they won’t end up on the streets.  They know they have options, and that they don’t have to toil in some dirty, endless cycle of misery.

Without the threat of homelessness, all these companies would have to up their game.  Ok, you aren’t with me yet, so let’s flip the perspective to help you out.

If you are an employer, and you have 100 applicants for one job, guess what?  You are making the rules.  You get to pick, and all these people are clamoring to win (and maintain) your approval.

If there is no homelessness, and therefore a smaller applicant pool, not to mention applicants who no longer fear homelessness, well… those people aren’t going to be quite as desperate to put up with anything just to put food on the table, are they?

Let’s get back to the government, as hopefully you can see how homelessness benefits industry.  In order to understand how homelessness benefits the government, you have to remember that industry litters the offices of government officials with lobbyists.  Politicians have to maintain a delicate balance between making *just enough* citizens happy that they get put into office; while making lobbyists and other politicians happy enough that they maintain real power and cash/ benefits.

Ok – so, if you don’t agree with me, that’s fine.  But ask yourself, with all the cash that moves around, and all the smart people that handle said cash, why don’t they solve the issue of homelessness?  You give me the reason.  The resources do, in fact, exist.  So why decide to not change it?

I almost forgot: why you are to blame.

Yes, I mean that.  It really is your fault.  We have developed and live in a culture where, in the spirit of our Convenient Individualism, it’s perfectly fine that those really really smart people are really really rich, that people have millions and billions, while others starve or die in the streets.  Meanwhile, we point our cameras at other countries, we tsk and talk about how terrible the conditions are.  And yet, we quite literally have kids who don’t get fed, while those top ten companies are raking in the cash.

And it’s your fault (and mine) because we pretend like we aren’t a part of it.  Much easier to suddenly be an Individualist, than to say, hey, this is crazy, let’s stop being so crazy!  We cast our votes, we go shopping, and we don’t demand any meaningful changes.  Why demand meaningful change?  Our favorite show is on… and besides, we pay our taxes… we have jobs!  No one helped us out!


Tell you what – the lottery went to 500 million recently.  Let’s all agree that anytime the lottery hits 300 million or more, instead of having a winner, we get those really smart people to develop a stable, good program to solve homelessness, and the program automatically gets those funds.  The smart people can do it pro-bono, for the good of the society at large.  We can say, hey, cool, everyone will benefit from this.  And we can put in oversights, with publicly viewable financial records, to prevent corruption.

Why not?

If I can fantasize a solution in minutes, and let’s be honest – I’m not as smart or informed as any of those people – then why can’t they?

I don’t really care if you agree or accept my explanations.  The most important thing, if you walk away from this with only one thing, is that you ask questions.  Ask yourself why no one really makes a significant change to these issues.  Think about how many resources there are.  Come up with your own reasons.

But if you think it just can’t be done, you’re kidding yourself.

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