The Homeless and The Hungry

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"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or the lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." [1]

— {Article 26 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights}

The United States of America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. The food Americans throw away annually could feed many third world countries. Yet in the midst of this great abundance are millions of the homeless and the hungry.

The old adage that you can measure the character of a nation by the way it treats the poorest of its countrymen, is a stark reminder of the injustice and the apathy which is, apparently, so much a part of the heartbeat of the nation.

Although the homeless are usually portrayed as strange people whose addictions, idiosyncracies, and mental health issues are the cornerstone of their adverse condition, detailed research paints a different picture. National surveys conducted by Toro Warren in 1999, show that six to eight percent of Americans have been homeless and nine to fifteen percent of children between the ages of 12 and seventeen have experienced homelessness. [2] And according to the US Census Bureau, between the years 2000 and 2001 the poverty level escalated to 11.7 percent within an underclass population 32.9 million.[3] And America’s Second Harvest in America (2001) report indicated that 23.3 million people sought and received emergency hunger relief from their charities in 2001.[4]

Moreover, a large percentage of the homeless are veterans of the armed services, many are sick or disabled, some are single women, and others are made up of entire families who have fallen on hard times due to the uncertainty of the job market and economic instability and insecurity for the average American citizen.

Despite the tendency of conventional media outlets to project homeless and hungry people as lazy, opportunistic beggars without the fortitude or the ambition to work, a recent survey indicates that 38 percent of people requesting emergency food assistance were employed, howbeit in jobs that did not generate enough income to ward off the devastating toll of inadequate wages and the voracious bite of soaring inflation.[5]

Violence Against the Homeless

The propensity toward violence and mayhem in America’s cities has targeted those who are frequently maligned, misunderstood and vulnerable, and in recent years attacks on homeless people has increased substantially. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has documented 212 assaults against individuals who were homeless. [6]

There are several factors that contribute to the targeting of homeless people for violent attack and murder. They are often stigmatized as worthless and parasitical, almost on a level with vermin. Also, the homeless are usually perceived as weak, abandoned, and sickly thus marking them as a easy target for small minded cowardly perpetrators and thrill seekers. The homeless are also thought of as unwanted and cut off from family connections, and they are frequently looked down upon with either disgust or apathy by law enforcement personnel and protective agencies.

In addition, the Darwinian survival of the fittest mentality that permeates our society, has established a mind-set which encourages abuse and violence toward the weak, the disadvantaged, and the unprotected.

Statistics taken from 98 US cities in 34 states show that while 89 of the assaults were non-lethal, 123 resulted in the murders of homeless individuals. The age of the victims ranged from a 74 year old man to a four month old infant.

Many of the incidents of violence against the homeless are so brutal and so callous, that it makes one shudder to think that they are symptoms of a deep abscess festering in the heart of our nation. For the society that reduces millions of its citizens to homelessness while setting the stage for violent elements which maim and kill with no compassion or human consideration, shares a large part of the guilt for the crime.

Some of the more vicious and startling incidents are: the unsolved serial killings of seven homeless men in Denver Colorado. In this case all the men were methodically beaten senseless. One with such force that his skull was shattered into pieces. Two others were beheaded. In other incidents, homeless people have been set on fire while they slept. In Hyattsville, Maryland, police officers were charged with beating a homeless man and attacking him with a police dog.

And in, perhaps, the most notorious incident on October of 1991 in Fort Worth, Texas, a homeless man was hit by a woman on her way home from a bar. The man, who was trapped in her windshield, was driven home to her garage where his pleas for help over a two day period went unheeded and he eventually bled to death.[7]

Homelessness and Poverty in Black America

African Americans have, traditionally, suffered homelessness and poverty in higher numbers than the general White population. Provocatively, this trend continues today. And those Blacks that are reduced to fending for themselves with no permanent housing quarters or stable food, are still regulated to other kinds of deprivation and neglect.

According to the 21st edition of the Urban Leagues’s Report on The State of Black America, more than 40 percent of Black households in metropolitan areas are considered high poverty neighborhoods. One out of three Blacks live in poverty, a rate three times that of Whites. And although Black Americans make up approximately 15 percent of the total population, they constitute 40 percent of those living in poverty.

Dora June Jackson, the Urban League’s Urban Issues Group Director says, "African Americans still endure significant problems which are caused and exacerbated by poverty, lack of culturally competent health-care providers, ineffective health care and racial discrimination."[8]

Moreover, national studies indicate that as much as 60 percent of the Black population in the United States live in areas with at least one, and often several uncontrolled unregulated toxic waste sites. And of those Blacks that do own their own homes, they were much more likely than Whites (of comparable credit) to have their mortgage applications denied. Blacks are also three times more likely to be injured in a house fire than either Whites or Latins.[9]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of Blacks is double the rate of whites, and although Blacks make up roughly 15 percent of the US population they comprise a staggering 40 percent of America’s homeless population.

Women and Children

Beginning in the 1980’s the number of homeless women and children has dramatically increased throughout the urban areas of America.

Women and children face a unique set of problems because of their vulnerability and the tendency of unscrupulous men to prey upon them.

Those that are addicted to drugs and alcohol, or that suffer from mental illnesses are also targeted to be turned out as prostitutes and manipulated into a variety of street hustles and scams by predatory males.

According to Eugene Birch’s study ‘The Unsheltered Woman’ homeless women in America are most likely to consist of two types. (1) A young mother not yet thirty-five with minor children, formerly living in rental housing. (2) An elderly woman previously alone in a rented unit, often government subsidized, and extremely poor, averaging an income some 80 percent less than the nation’s median wage.

Children, our most precious and valuable resource, are sexually abused, brutalized and neglected on the mean streets of our cities, while many Americans view them from afar, or through the windshields of shiny automobiles on their daily commute to sterile jobs, and soon forget that they exist. Or as Robert C Coates poignantly describes in his book, ‘A Street is not a Home’:

"Suffering. Terrified. Walking all day beside the giants. Humiliated. Hungry and dirty. In real danger. Being abused. Skipping developmental stages. Losing the power to learn, losing pieces of the power to be human. Future voters. Future wards of society. The nation’s hope: its very meaning being degraded, soiled beyond belief and, perhaps, beyond recognition by negligent leaders filled with rhetoric and tenderness for flags, but not for children being taken apart piece by piece, alive."[10]

Conclusion

During the mid 1960’s, at the height of the throes of violent civil unrest, President Lyndon Baines Johnson allocated federal funding to set up programs for indigent Americans in a trumpeted "War on Poverty."

During this same era, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, one of the premiere humanists of the 20th century, became involved in activities in which he sought to abolish or to alleviate the outrageous conditions of the poor and the dispossessed throughout America as well as the rest of the world. King began to link the struggles of oppressed and exploited people in America with oppressed and exploited people in other lands (particularly in Vietnam) and shortly afterwards (in April of 1968) he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while supporting a strike of the city’s sanitation workers.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered, King delivered a speech in New York city that emphasized his shift form the narrow and limited arena of civil rights to the wide and all encompassing territory of human rights. A shift which (many believe) marked him for assassination. The following is a stirring excerpt from this speech:

"Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into my field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experi-ments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and

I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that Amer-ica would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."[11]

Today the misadventure of Vietnam has been replaced with the tragic bombardments, invasions, and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, while the War on Poverty goes largely forgotten or unmentioned in contemporary America.

Unlike President Lyndon Johnson, who at least went through the motions of correcting economic and social disparities in America, the policies of the current President, George W Bush, has resulted in even more dire conditions and predictions. Not only for the so-called lower class but for the middle class as well.

In this climate of a devastated American economy, Bush saw fit to funnel over 200 billion dollars in American tax dollars to finance an illegal, unjustifiable and disastrous war of aggression against the people of Iraq.

Reportedly, during Bush’s tenure as President, the number of Americans wallowing in poverty has increased by almost 5 million, resulting in 35.9 million Americans existing below the poverty line with a third of them children; this in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known.

Moreover, in today’s America, the number of people forced to live without health care insurance has soared by another 5.2 million. And the nation, already groaning from the effects of unemployment and underemployment, has lost over 2 million jobs while the wages of most Americans have become stagnant and ineffectual to bridge the poverty gap or to act as a safety net.[12]

Apathy and neglect have traditionally been the bedfellows of poverty and homelessness. We cannot afford to glance at the plight of those who are shelter-less, jobless, and hungry and perceive it as someone else’s shortcoming or problem. None of us, regardless of how insulated we consider ourselves, are immune to the sweeping vicissitudes of poverty. Sadly, this is as true today as it has been in any period of this country’s history.

Notes and References:

[1]. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" Article 25

[2]. See Toro & Warren Survey, (1999)

[3]. Statistics taken from the United States Census Bureau for years 2000 and 2001

[4]. "Hunger in America" America’s Second Harvest Report, (2001)

[5]. Ibid

[6]. "Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA" N C H findings released on April 10, 2003

[7]. "An American Epidemic: Hate Crimes Against Homeless People" Chance Martin, May 6, 2003, accessible online at: http://www.poormagazine.org/index.cfm?
l1=news&category=39&story=1182

[8]. People’s Weekly World, November 30, 1996

[9]. "The Black Condition" accessible online at:
http://www.blacksandjews.com/BlackCondition.html

[10]. Robert C Coates, "A Street is Not a Home: Solving America’s Homeless Dilemma", Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, (1990) p. 61

[11]. "Beyond Vietnam" Delivered by Dr Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1967

Full text accessible online at:
http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/speeches/Beyond_Vietnam.html

[12]. Detroit Free Press, Wednesday, October 20, 2004; p. 13A

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