While President Obama started his first State of Union address last night, about 100 volunteers and I were gathering at the United Planning Office (UPO) to go out in teams for the Point in Time census to count the number of people sleeping on the DC streets. Even though we were only two miles away from where the President was speaking, I felt like I was a lot farther away and in many respects, I was.
As I started out on the census with another volunteer, I saw President Obama speaking on many TVs as I walked around a nearby neighborhood. As I saw him speaking on TV, I wondered if he would mention homelessness once in his speech, but I found out later that he didn't and I wasn't surprised. This year alone, according to National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, three million people will experience some kind of homelessness, whether it is sleeping on a friend's couch after an eviction for a couple days or a prolonged period of homelessness.
The topic of homelessness has been on my mind constantly for a couple weeks, after I decided to volunteer for this census. In between signing up and last night, a fellow Quaker brought to my attention an article in Street Sense, a publication by homeless advocates, about violence on homeless people by other homeless people and made the point that the homeless are not always innocent victims.
I already knew this from my own personal experience. Once several years ago, in Chicago, two homeless men accosted me as I was walking around downtown and I had escaped by walking frantically into a nearby store. Also during the past two years in my job as a coordinator of a service learning program, I have heard about numerous people speak about their experiences being homeless. I have heard stories of drug/alcohol abuse, depression, and health issues as causes of chronic homelessness.
Just because someone isn't entirely innocent of the situation they are in, does that mean we shouldn't help? But is that really an issue: Their innocence? They need help. No one is really benefiting from people sleeping on the streets. When a natural disaster or a fire hit, does the Red Cross not help people who didn't have any insurance?
I have done several risky things in my life that could have easily led me to be homeless, like moving to an unfamiliar city with no job prospects, passing up good paying jobs in the hope of a better job opportunity, and spending money that I don't have by using my credit card. But I have always been lucky to have a bed to sleep on and food to eat, because I have a strong support net and a family and many friends who loves me unconditionally. Every time I messed up, I knew I had a fallback plan. For many people who experience homelessness, they don't usually have that kind of support net, like Joe, who I met last night.
My volunteer partner and I encountered Joe outside a pharmacy panhandling. He was reluctant to admit that he was homeless. As he was telling his story, he told about his mother, who told him constantly that he wouldn't amount to anything. In contrast to my life, where each time I messed up, my parents were there to encourage me to try again and not give up. I know that there are stories of people who grow up fine with messed up parents, but there are still a lot of stories, like Joe. When the budget gets cut, social services to help people get off the streets are usually the first ones to go, not salaries of elected officials or the military budget. For example, here in Washington DC, people rallied together to save potential budget cuts to social services in order to save vital programs that help the homeless and low income people from becoming homeless.
Obama's theme last night was about how America needs to move forward together to build a better economy. As we work towards that goal, we need to see how as a community we can better meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst, instead of just continuing to turn a blind eye to them.
PS: Point in Time Surveys happen all over the United States during late January. Check with your local social services if you are interested in volunteering in your community.