Homelessness: An Old Institution In America

Regular commenter L’Enfant de la Haute Mer pointed to a BBC story (“America’s homeless resort to tent cities“) detailing the plight of a group of people near Ann Arbor, Michigan who have plunged so far into poverty that they can no longer afford to rent homes and are now living in a tent city, an unhygienic cluster of tents, with no sanitary restroom facilities and scant protection against the cold in winter. The article says there are “at least 55” American cities that have witnessed the formation of such tent cities. Not surprisingly, diseases spring up in such encampments as people lack not only sanitary facilities but also medical care. The height of irony is that hospitals, police and a local homeless shelter contact the encampment… asking if they can send them more homeless people. What must it be like to have become a society’s dumping ground for people whom that society’s institutions don’t want to deal with?

I have a personal observation to add to this story. No, I am fortunate that I have never been homeless myself. But this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in America… in my lifetime. During the terms of the “great” President Ronald Reagan, people in Houston, TX were homeless in large numbers.

At that time, I held a job in the Texas Medical Center, about three miles from my home. I commuted to work by bicycle, riding along bike trails provided by the City of Houston during more prosperous times. In my area, the bike trails ran along the concreted banks of a bayou, about halfway down the bank, parallel to the street that ran beside the bayou, but far enough down that the trails were not visible from a car traveling on the street. The bicycle trails ran under several street bridges.

Each bridge had at least two homeless residents, one living under each end of the bridge. Their possessions were scant… usually a sleeping bag and a backpack; sometimes a battered shopping cart for collecting cans and bottles to sell. Oh, and a lot of them had small alarm clocks. Yes, that’s right: many of these people were obviously employed, but their paychecks did not enable them to afford housing.

Such was the world in Houston in the days of the “great” Ronald Reagan. If you have read this blog long enough to notice how unreservedly I hate Republicans in power, now you know one reason I hate them. This kind of problem is completely amenable to solution in a society as wealthy as ours… but solving it involves taking actions which… for Republicans… require going against their “principles” … their almighty “principles,” which never seem to require them to endure poverty personally. It’s always someone else’s lot to be poor.

I am glad that my principles do not require me to allow people to starve out in the cold. I think my conscience would trouble me if I did that. Such is not the case for today’s Republican leadership, damn them.

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