Thursday, December 18, 2008

More Than Spare Change is Needed: Pt 4

By Margaret DeJesus (

“Part of the public perception of homelessness is based on what we’re all used to seeing, a guy drinking on a park bench or those stemmers begging for money,” said Eck, who spent years being homeless following his downward spiral from chronic depression.“You might look at them and think, ‘If you can shake a cup for eight hours a day then why can’t you go get a job?”

Stoops, NCH spokesman, said many people tend to briskly walk by the homeless asking for help in the streets because they know homelessness can happen to them too.

“The reason we ignore the homeless in the streets is because we know that could be us and America has this looking out for number one attitude, yourself and your own family, and everyone else be damned because you can only help so many people at a time,” he said.

During their speech to local college students, the Middletons of west Medford stressed that money wasn’t the only way to help the homeless.

“You don’t always have to give money every time you see someone on the street. All you have to do is say, ‘Hi or God bless you,’ and just give that person a sense of hope or dignity,” said 14-year-old Kyla Middleton.

Mentally ill, alcoholic or drug addicts are just a few adjectives that might come to mind for some when conceptualizing who makes up the homeless population.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many cities are passing laws against sleeping and panhandling on the sidewalk.

“This can give the perception to teenagers that the homeless are low lives, scum and even the city wants to get rid of them,” said Stoops.

He referenced the infamous and disturbing “Bum Fights” DVD series popularized on the internet which depicts homeless individuals being coerced to do dangerous and outrageous acts for small amounts of money and alcohol. Stoops said many teenagers post videos to the web of their own acts of violence against the homeless.

“They’re (the homeless) there, they’re visible and they won’t be able to fight back,” he said.
Because of this negative perception, poverty can sometimes be conceived as a punishment for bad behavior or substance abuse.

“Homelessness was very great in the Great Depression, but drug and alcohol abuse was not,” said Brendan O’Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York.

O’Flaherty based his 1996 book Making Room about the causes of rising homelessness around economic analysis of housing markets instead of merely explaining it in terms of destructive habits.

Middleton’s daughter said that a multitude of issues are connected to homelessness and need to be addressed.

“I love advocating to end homelessness but I think everyone is putting too much energy into one thing. There’s many other things, like education. In this country if you don’t go to college you probably won’t get a job. Or health care, if people can’t pay for it then they could end up on the streets,” she said.

Many advocates say that attention should be focused on providing affordable housing rather than depending on emergency shelters to help the homeless.

“A shelter is a cost we pay that doesn’t necessarily result in long term stability and economic opportunity that you want for families,” said Greene, Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commissioner. “Housing is an investment because it’s stable and allows a family to be a part of a neighborhood with schools, shops, and places to work.”

Eck, who experienced homelessness, also said that “more opportunities to be self sufficient are needed,” but recognized how human nature tends to prefer the quick fix.

“We all want to bandage the problem. If the pipe above my head starts to drip, I’ll put some tape around the hole. If it still drips, then I’ll get a bucket to put under it. And if it keeps dripping and dripping I’ll keep getting buckets instead of fixing the actual problem,” he said.

Governor Deval Patrick’s plan proposed last year to end homelessness by 2013 puts greater emphasis on providing permanent housing and taking steps to prevent people from slipping into homelessness. According to the 2007 Homeless Commission’s Report, “A key defining principle for the new system is targeting the right resources to the right people at the right time.”

“I think the worst economic circumstance since the Great Depression will present enormous challenges, but the level of commitment and partnership between city, state and local partners on this issue is extraordinary in Massachusetts,” said Greene.

According to Stoops of the NCH, a solution to ending homelessness comes down to more of a grassroots level nationwide.

“If average Americans are talking about it then officials will respond and provide leadership. I don’t care who does it, whether it be a celebrity, the Pope, Bill Gates, or Ted Kennedy. Someone has to make ending poverty a priority, because right now it’s not a priority,” he said.

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