Treating the homeless like wayward birds

It was a small article in one of the daily Seattle newspapers tucked in near the middle of the local section. It said that the fifth tent city was now being constructed, and I wondered why it was not a major story.

Along with the tent cities, we have thousands of people living in recreational vehicles under bridges and even more living in the dense woods inside and outside the city limits. The state of Washington now has over 23,000 homeless people, and only four states - California, Texas, Michigan and Georgia - have more, but it's not front-page news.

This is the worst it has been since the Great Depression, and President Bush keeps talking about how well the economy is doing. Obviously he is talking about the people with newly minted silver spoons in their mouths, for we now have more billionaires than we have ever had in America.

We cannot create more money in America, so the money has to come out of the pockets of someone else. Every time someone becomes a billionaire, someone else loses his or her status as a millionaire, thousandaire or hundredaire.

There are an estimated 3-5 million permanent homeless people in America, and at any given time there are 5-8 million experiencing at least one night of homelessness.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration believes that upwards of 10 million people are without a permanent residence. The National Coalition for Homeless estimates 25 percent of the homeless are children under 18, 40 percent are military veterans, 35 percent are Caucasian, 50 percent are African American, 40 percent are single men, 14 percent are single women and 46 percent are couples.

Most of you have heard such statistics before, but it's important to keep reminding people of how dire the situation is becoming in the planet's wealthiest nation. We want to ignore the problem: over 60 American cities have virtually made it illegal to be poor. In some of these cities you can't publicly beg, sleep on the street or be in a bus shelter for more than one hour. Las Vegas even went as far as to make it illegal for people to feed the homeless in parks or public places, as though they were wayward birds that will simply fly away if no one pays attention.

All of these statistics were gathered before the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Now, the soon-to-be homeless will include a lot of ex-homeowners who cannot keep up their mortgages as well as renters who have paid their rents but will be kicked out because their landlords defaulted on their mortgages.

It would be comfortable if these people would simply fade into the bushes after begging for food on every street corner in the city, but that's not the way it works. If I was homeless, and my child was hungry or cold, I would not let you live warm and safe without any stress.

Every open window or unlocked car door would become an opportunity to survive. Every unattended purse or coat would be an opportunity to feel comfortable for at least one night.

The increasing number of homeless Americans will affect all of us.

I encourage you to take out your old coats and clothing and donate them directly to homeless people, or the people that work with them. Make whatever contributions you can to make life better for the less fortunate because it will cost you more in the long run if you don't.

Every church should adopt some homeless families and do what they can for them. If you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless, they will be more likely to be a member of your congregation. This is what it means to save one soul at a time.

Why can't Martin Luther King County be a place where we find solutions for this dilemma? I am not talking about long feeding or clothing lines; I am talking about ways of transforming people's lives so they can take care of themselves.

Look at how much debris litters our parks, beaches, freeways and city streets. Can we put people to work cleaning up the mess in exchange for a warm place to live and a healthy supply of food? I think we can, and I think we must do something like this soon. It costs far more to incarcerate someone than to implement such a suggestion.

Our homeless numbers indicate that Washington state is already in the cross hairs of just such a dilemma, in spite of being one of the less populated states in the nation. It's not going away, and we only have so much space for tent cities. Every day homeowners are fending off people with RVs that want to park them in their neighborhoods. This can and will get nasty unless we do something soon.

That person begging on the busiest corner on your block is not an outsider looking for a handout, he is a neighbor sliding down the slippery slope, out of the middle class and into homelessness and hopelessness.

Neighbor, can you spare a dime?

Central Area writer Charlie James may be reached at this link.[[In-content Ad]]