How Does Homelessness Concern You?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately one out of 100 people are currently homeless. Seven out of 100 have been homeless at some point in their lives. These are sizable numbers. You have a greater chance chance of becoming homeless at some time in your life as you do of developing cancer or being killed in a car accident (based on MADD's statistics of 600,000 fatal car accidents in a population of 250 million.)

Every person is connected to many others. The majority of Americans know someone who has been homeless, even a close friend or family member.

It has been said that homelessness is less a lack of income than a lack of community. From the statistics, it seems that if everyone could help one person a little, no-one would have to end up homeless.

The Homeless Are Different

One of the things people naturally do when they are afraid of something is to distance themselves from it. In a time when most families are one or two paychecks from homelessness, it is reassuring to most to tell themselves that "I can't become homeless because"
  1. I am not an alcoholic
  2. I am not a drug addict
  3. I am not mentally ill
  4. I am not lazy
  5. I am educated
  6. I have job skills
  7. I have a family who cares about me
  8. I have friends who care about me
1, 2, 3: Only 40% or less of the people in homeless shelters are addicted to alcohol or drugs, and/or are mentally ill. Some of them developed those conditions after becoming homeless.

4. 50% to 60% of the people in homeless shelters work full-time, some working two or three jobs. Those who do not work at paid jobs are often taking some form of training or doing volunteer work. It is hard work just to survive -- a Belltown Herald journalist who tried following the schedule of a street-person one day said, "after two weeks of this, I'd catch pneumonia and die."

5, 6. Many of the people in homeless shelters are highly educated, often with professional job skills.

7, 8. People have died on the street with family and friends in homes who cared deeply about them. There is only so much you can do if the family resources are strained already, or if an individual's problems are beyond the resources of the family.

Ultimately, homelessness is simply a state where the problems of the individual exceed the resources of the individual.

Why Should You Help?

The world isn't perfect, and very few of the people in it are. Sudden disasters fall on the most well-planned lives. Most people, with a little bit of help when they are most vulnerable, can recover from disaster.

Part of developing a society is learning to watch out for each other. Personally, I consider altruism natural. I see very small children act in spontaneous bursts of compassion and generosity, and it makes sense to me that altruism is in our genes. Thirty cavefolk who are watching out for each other will survive better than thirty individuals on their own.

Social Darwinism

Some people seem to recover from disaster without help. There are anecdotal stories of people who grew up in extreme poverty, or had their health and all possessions lost in a fire, and who worked and saved until they had a job and a house and a car again, without ever taking aid from others.

There are anecdotal stories of people falling out airplanes without parachutes and surviving, too. Shall we do away with parachutes?

Some people believe that if everyone who cannot survive in "the free market" on their own is allowed to die off, it will improve our society. Survival of the fittest. But do any of us know if the ability to survive in our current economy really defines human "fitness"? A lot of decent and courageous people who benefitted humankind died in Fascist Germany. A lot of the cowardly, corrupt and psychotic lived. Survival of a particular human under a particular social system does not always mean that human being has qualities that benefit humans in the long run. Our system of heredity encourages variety precisely because the environment does change, and what thrives in a new environment may not be what fit into the old. Perhaps the true Social Darwinism is to maintain as diverse a cultural pool as we possibly can.

There Is No Free Lunch

"There is no free ride" pertains to all of us. Every one of us has inherited benefits and developments from generations past, and lives in a network of the labor of others. In order to keep that human network going, each one of us must contribute back to it.

Those contributions come in many ways. For many years, a homeless woman in Seattle swept and cleaned in front to the County courthouse, unpaid. Homeless volunteers in Seattle keep a network of homeless shelters and storage units going. Homeless computer experts teach skills to other homeless people, help them get email addresses and web pages. Homeless artists and poets move and inspire others both homeless and non-homeless. Which of these efforts is worthless because it doesn't bring in a salary?

It is not always true that if you watch out for others, others will watch out for you. But you are more likely to get out of anything what you put into it, from study to society. And the farthest that anyone is allowed to fall in your society is the farthest that you will be allowed to fall. If no-one is allowed to starve, you will never starve. If it is unacceptable that anyone be outside without shelter, you will never be outside without shelter. If the dignity and civil rights of all persons -- including those who annoy you -- are respected, your own dignity and civil rights are safer.

You Can Do It Just Because

None of these remarks are meant to discourage those whose instinctive reaction anyone who is hurting is to reach out and help. Just because.

Homeless Columns ed. by Anitra L. Freeman