Saturday, November 26, 2005

The least of these, my brethren

I read a very good post on Girl on the Blog's blog about a destitute veteran. One of those people who live among us who people ignore, or worse.

I'd also read an article while websurfing earlier today about how some suburban communities and, just today, hospitals are dumping homeless patients into skid row, an area of LA which is rife with drugs, alcoholism and other problems, not the least of which are allegations that hundreds of homeless people, mostly blacks, disappeared during the recent UCLA cadaver scandal and ended up as involuntary cadavers and organ donors. Then, the cadavers that were 'purchased' by UCLA medical school from a trafficer in bodies, were subsequently (and illegally) hacked apart before being used in the medical school for organs to be then sold to local hospitals.

During the "UCLA's Cadaver Scandal" hundreds of homeless persons, mostly Blacks, were mysteriously disappearing from the Los Angeles downtown "Skid Row" area that is not very far from UCLA

In light of this, the behavior of the hospitals, sending patients, some of whom can barely walk, to an area where it was not so long ago that many of them were apparently getting murdered and their organs returned to the hospital as a form of 'payment,' is particularly disturbing.

Now, in the United States, while there were always a few hobos who chose to remain homeless, they were generally single men, and in small numbers. However a myth grew up around them that was used to justify slashing housing funds beginning in the 1980's. It was that ALL homeless were that way 'by choice' (which may have been very nearly true when Federal funds for housing for the destitute peaked in the 1970's.) I've talked to a number of homeless or formerly homeless people myself and I can tell you that very few want to always remain homeless. Further, there are now thousands of homeless children, living with their families on the streets of America. How can a child 'choose' to be homeless? Of course, if I (a homeowner) forced my kids to sleep out in the yard on a piece of cardboard every night, I would quite rightly be accused of child abuse and have my kids collected by CPS. But if we treat kids this way as a society, then it is not considered child abuse. Further, I would consider it beneath what America can stand for if we allow ANY American, adult or child, to live on the street simply because they don't have the means to pay for shelter. There are of course, privately run homeless shelters, but as we are continually reminded, especially at this time of year, there are just plain not enough places in the shelters for all of them. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that in the 1980's we closed down a lot of mental institutions (a flawed alliance between conservatives who didn't want to continue funding them and liberals who thought it was a terrible place to keep people locked up-- even though with the benefit of hindsight, that was a better place for people who had problems that prevented them from functioning in society than simply sending them out into the world to make their way; Darn that Louise Fletcher for doing such a perfect job playing Nurse Ratched). What it does show is that there is more need for this than there are private donations (and I am saying that as a person who has in the past donated to some of these same shelters). The whole myth of people CHOOSING to be homeless is a cop-out. The dehumanizing of homeless people, by chasing them from town to town to town through the use of local ordinances (out of sight, out of mind) only makes this worse. I have no problem with privately operated shelters and nonprofits being PART of the solution, but if it is too big for that then government has to be involved.

But it isn't just the homeless. What of those who may have a roof over their head, thanks to family, or because they have a subsistence level job- just enough to pay for an apartment (though heating it this year may be problematical)? With the last round of budget cuts they may not be there very much longer. Katrina exposed the poverty that is present in many inner cities. People may even be homeowners, of an old house that has been in the family for years, but without decent jobs, that is about all they have. We have to tackle this with a mixture of strategies. And it has to be done on a large scale-- Giving a poor person a sandwich will work on an individual scale, but it will require a significant investment of federal funds to actually solve the underlying problem, and will have to include funds for economic development and employment training (if Republicans really believed their old saw about 'give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime' they wouldn't be so quick to cut funds for job training programs.)

There are, of course, people with serious drug problems. We have to rethink our strategy towards drugs, and focus less on prison (where about half of prisoners are there due to drug offenses, and it still runs rampant in society) to more effective solutions-- ranging from simple common sense (like the Oklahoma law that requires that cold tablets that are the precursor to meth be stored in a locked cabinet and signed for in small amounts at a time) to more controversial but perhaps overdue solutions like the legalization of marijuana so we can focus our resources on 1) preventing the manufacture, sale and transport of harder drugs and 2) education towards young people about drugs (and alcohol) as we have with tobacco (and we need to be specific-- every time there is a new drug, those who push it claim it is 'safe,' which is invariably a lie). And we have to include education about alcohol. In my own community (which is a dry town) we don't have a problem with alcoholic vagrants, but drive ten miles or twenty miles away (depends which direction you are going) you will find many, many of them sleeping on sidewalks, panhandling people in parking lots and in convenience stores spending whatever they have panhandled on large bottles of liquor. Now, I don't believe that education in schools about the effects of alcohol, similar to what we do with tobacco, will solve this problem by itself (most of them are adults well out of school anyway) but we have to look at funding alcohol intervention programs and make AA and other programs more readily available. Funding these programs with taxes on marijuana and increased taxes on alcohol would mean that we wouldn't have to go into debt to do it. Additionally, we should look at alcohol abuse (as opposed to use) in homes as seriously as we look at drug abuse, so that children of adult alcoholics are given special attention and counseling to prevent them from continuing the cycle. The rampage yesterday by black men in suits this week at an Oakland liquor store may not be a method I agree with, but their frustration over what alcohol is doing in their community (and it is doing the same to native American communities) has to be addressed. We know that Prohibition won't work, but giving people effective alternatives now and hope for a better future is one of the best weapons we do have.

Another group that we often overlook are former convicts. Now, I have no problem with tough sentencing laws, but once someone has served their sentence, if we continue to punish and make life difficult for them (I blogged on this on October 15) by slashing funding for rehabilitation programs and transition programs, making it difficult for them to obtain employment and denying them their basic rights of citizenship, aren't we in effect pushing them towards the one avenue of making a living--crime-- that they don't need special training or a resume to go back to? The worst that happens to them in that case is that they go back to prison, but since they have food and a roof in prison, it is better in some ways than unemployment.

Now we have by now a great number of those who we seem to ignore as a society. But they are always with us, and a measure in the end of what kind of a society we are is how we treat all of these people.

1 comment:

Girl on the Blog said...

Great post, Eli... There are those, I think, who do live on the streets by choice... but I think they are few and far between.

The local news did a "bust" on an individual in Nashville. Everyday he would pull up in his Cadillac grab his tin can and his card-board sign and sit on the side of the street begging for money. This is how he made his living. Needless to say, he is no longer doing this due to the bust. Shame on him... he lived in a nice house, had a nice car and had food everyday. People are crazy!

BUT... there is no excuse for our great nation when they turn their backs on those who truly cannot make ends meet. When we have children who are living on the streets...that tells you something is wrong!!!

BTW... thanks for the link... Eugene is one of many soldiers...