Homelessness & Lack of Love in the U.S.A.
By Meri C
December 20, 2010 - 3:06am ET
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Got inspired after leaving a comment on Sara Robinson's blog (OurFuture.org), so I thought I'd submit my own story, as embarrassed (and vulnerable) it may leave me. My story is so long, though, that I’ve divided it into two blogs. (I also have another blog at www.theMadBagLady.wordpress.com).
First, I've made a documentary film, "Rocky Mountain Homelessness" and written a book, "Diary of a Mad Bag Lady" in an effort to turn my own financial struggles into art—tragedy into triumph, if you will. But my documentary is controversial. I didn’t realize how dangerous it is to suggest that we help the poor. Those who hold power right now do not want us to help each other, but they do want those of us who are poor to complacently stay that way—and to just shut up already. Or else.
Poverty, I’ve discovered, is largely orchestrated. Yes, I’m telling you that it is, in fact, a conspiracy. Poverty does not result from a lack of natural resources or lack of knowledge or lack of a work ethic on the part of its victims. Poverty results from the greed of a wealthy few who’ve decided they must monopolize and hoard the wealth while they prevent the rest of us from attaining it. Why? Because they believe they are inherently superior and deserve more than the rest of us. In order to maintain that belief they must keep the rest of us in poverty.
Think I’m just a wacky conspiracy theorist? Then explain to me how it is that the richest country in the world, i.e., the U.S.A., a land that holds plenty of resources, is experiencing poverty and homelessness that is rising at an alarming rate? And this while the richest Americans continue to get richer?
When I say that homelessness is only a Hobsons' choice at best, that no one truly chooses to be homeless, I hear remarks such as these: "Some homeless people won't stay in the shelter. Those who are mentally ill refuse to take their medication. Alcoholics refuse to stop drinking. The homeless guy I met yesterday said he liked being homeless,” etc. But my favorite line is the story of the rich lady who chose not to live in her beautiful house but to live in a homeless shelter instead because all of her friends live there... It’s the old, “They were rich but unhappy,” lie that is retold every now and then. As though living in abject poverty would make them happier. (If that’s the case, then why do the rich keep complaining about paying taxes? They could just give up all of their money to the IRS then live in poverty and experience true “happiness.”)
But back to the homeless who refuse to stay in shelters: It doesn't occur to some people that staying in a shelter is not something anyone in their right mind would want to do. A shelter is not an ideal place to stay. Institutionalized settings, in general, are not ideal, even under the best of circumstances. We all like to be able to choose our own lifestyle, without having to cow to an authority figure at a shelter--or any other institution. And few of us would like to share a room with 50 or more strangers, some of whom might be drunk, mentally ill or potentially violent. Shelters, by definition, are temporary places to stay during a storm. While shelters may be necessary to help those who are stranded out in the cold, they are, by no means solutions to homelessness. Shelters are temporary band-aids provided until we come to a real, permanent solution to the problem. (Like affordable housing and living-wage jobs, for example. Duh!)
Similarly, medication is not always the solution to mental illness. If a mentally ill client refuses to take the medication then perhaps we should ask ourselves whether that medication is truly helping the person rather than insist our treatment has to be right and the patient must be wrong. Perhaps it is time we seek alternative treatments for mental illness rather than continue to force medication on someone who clearly does not feel it is helping him or her. (I don’t think the pharmaceutical industry would be very supportive of this idea, but those of us who’d like to help the homeless find it intriguing.)
But we cannot come up with innovative ideas, we cannot see the flaws in our system, if we continue to blame the homeless by claiming they "choose" to be homeless. The pharmaceutical industry has hijacked our health care system to the extent that even doctors, as educated as they are, cannot see alternative solutions for mental (and other forms of) illness. The drug reigns supreme!
So my documentary (and my book) is controversial because it challenges Americans to recognize major flaws in our system and, therefore, in ourselves! Turns out, the U.S.A. is not the greatest country in the world, and we Americans are not such nice people after all. Let's face it. We have become a nation of self-centered, materialistic, imperialistic, rugged individualists who seek out money and material things that we value more than we value the future of our own children, our society, and the world around us.
I wish I had a dime (Brother, can you spare one? I won't spend it on drugs, I promise.) for every time I've heard a fellow American say, "I don't want to pay for someone else's healthcare by seeing my taxes increase."
(Really, America? So you’ll allow millions of people to get sick and spread disease because they can’t afford medical treatment? You’ll allow thousands of maladies to turn into permanent disabilities for those who don’t get proper treatment on time so that people become no longer able to work and forced to collect disability from the government instead? Won’t that ultimately raise your precious taxes? Won’t that hurt our society as fewer people are able to contribute? Ah, but I’m asking you to think here. I’m sorry…)
(By the way, if I sound like I’m angry at my fellow American, it’s probably just because I am. I think, therefore, I am.)
And while many Americans fear "socialism" they should really be afraid of its demise. When we find our once public roads, sidewalks, parks, schools, fire and police departments, social security and Medicare benefits, and tap water privatized we'll be paying a lot more than high taxes. Imagine paying a toll just to be able to walk down the street or to take a bath. And we can just say ‘goodbye’ to freedom of speech when the sidewalks are all privately owned.
Americans are worried that they're being "taken advantage of" if they give a dollar to a homeless person or if their tax dollars pay for some poor slob's welfare, Medicaid or food stamp benefits. But these same Americans are happy to pay $100 for a pair of sneakers manufactured for pennies by a ten-year-old child being exploited in some third world country factory. Americans are happy to pay for every song they want to hear on mp3 and every movie they watch on DVD when there was a time, not so long ago, when we could listen to songs on the radio and watch movies on TV for free and record music and TV shows and watch or listen to them over and over again at our leisure for free. Ah, but the entertainment industry is struggling, we’re told. Right. I just read that Tom Cruise averages only about $60 million per film. Poor guy! How dare we “steal” his films by videotaping them and watching them for free. Meanwhile, Steven Speilberg earns a mere $100 million per year. (Really, I had to count the zeroes twice to make sure.)
But we’re not being taken advantage of when we’re threatened with an FBI warning at the beginning of our DVD that if we copy it or share it on the Internet or otherwise, we’re “stealing” and we could go to jail. We’re not being taken advantage of when we’re asked to spend $10 just for a small bag of popcorn and sodapop at a movie theater.
We’re being taken advantage of by the “welfare queen” who collects a few hundred dollars a month and lives in substandard housing in a high-crime, heavily polluted area and is criticized for staying at home with her children and actually trying to raise them rather than just neglecting them by going out and “getting a job.”
Or a homeless person shivering in the cold begging us for a dollar.
If we reject the idea that homeless people choose to be homeless (or that poor people have made the wrong choices) then we open the door to all sorts of solutions. Why does that guy refuse to stay in the shelter? Is there a way we can provide better housing or services for him? Why does this able-bodied citizen stay on welfare? Why won't she get a job? Is there a way we can find her a job that she'd actually love, a job that makes good use of her natural talents and skills, a job that pays a decent, living wage replete with health care benefits, a job that will lead her to a better life and not just temporarily sustain her?
Or how about this: Can this person who refuses to take the medication or to stop drinking or abusing drugs be helped in some new way we haven't thought of yet? Can we investigate other solutions for those who obviously aren't being helped by the solutions we've proposed so far?
Of course the answer is yes, but we won't ask the above questions until we recognize that what we are doing is just not working. Republicans like to talk about individual responsibility. But there is also such a thing as social responsibility, the responsibility we have to each other as humans sharing the same planet.
Again, much of this comes down to money. The government has been budget cutting programs and services for the poor since Ronald Reagan. People who work with the poor are increasingly finding themselves overwhelmed and unable to truly help in any real and lasting way. It must be painful to watch people suffer and to feel powerless to help them. So I suppose it’s easier to just give up and say, “Ah, those homeless people just want to live that way.”
But part of our disdain for the poor, and particularly the homeless, is a result of something more sinister. As a nation we’ve lost our ability to feel empathy and compassion for those who are less fortunate. We’ve become a nation of sociopaths.
And, in the end, that is our biggest problem.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future