In my city there are a lot of homeless people. Almost all of them are either mentally ill and/or alcoholics. I really care about them. One of them I brought to the city rehab center, but he could only stay three months, then it was back to the streets. Two others I brought to a private rehab center. At this facility the homeless can reside there as long as they want to. Through the winter their basic needs are met and they receive help locating their families. But as soon as summer starts, they leave.
One particular young man my son’s age, who needed medical attention, I brought home so he could bathe, eat and get a change of clothes before going to the hospital. After he had been discharged I couldn’t let him stay in my home, so he had to stay on the street.
My question is, what can I do? My heart hurts from the feeling that I can’t do more. The homeless are people, too. They used to be infants, who’ve been kissed and taken care of. At one time they went to school, and their lives were ordered. Why does God make me take notice of them? My neighbors and friends ignore the homeless. They are genuinely surprised when I tell them about transients living next to their homes. They don’t see them. I don’t know what effort I should commit to—helping them get sober, feeding them or providing shelter. While there’s only so much I as an individual can do, the problem cannot be solved at the state level. Well wishes for the homeless are useless while they starve and freeze each day. What miracle will it take to solve this crisis on a mass scale?
By now you may have heard of New York City Police Officer Larry DePrimo. While on duty last month he encountered a homeless man with bare feet during a cold New York night. Moved by compassion for the destitute man—now known as military veteran Jeffrey Hillman—the officer bought him a seventy-five-dollar pair of winter boots. A tourist from Arizona snapped a photo of Officer DePrimo offering the boots to Hillman. The image of this generous deed having been posted online, it reached an audience in the hundreds of thousands. It became the subject of mass media praise and, ultimately, scrutiny.
The intense media attention on this simple act of kindness betrayed the relief felt by the rest of us not doing our part—that, thank God, someone is out there is doing something. However, as you well know, the full scope of this national calamity presents a challenge far greater than any individual can bear.
The overall story illustrates homelessness’ complexity. When media outlets followed up on the encounter, they reported that Hillman in fact is not homeless; that he’s not wearing the boots the police officer gave him; and that members of his family have conveyed he is welcome to return home. These details get to the heart of why as a nation we have come to tolerate homelessness. Because of a case like Jeffrey Hillman’s, the prevailing thought about citizens without permanent shelter sounds like this: they’re out there because they want to be. We prefer to err on the side of individual freedom rather than ‘impose’ shelter and clothing.
Couple that assumption with the harrowing possibility that some able-minded, able-bodied people will exploit society’s help! (As far as I know no one has put an end to bank robbery and yet banks find the courage to open their doors every weekday at 9:00 a.m.) To prevent fraud of this damnable caliber, we as a nation have decided that an underground society of Jeffrey Hillmans is but a small price to pay for charity that is as free of exploitation as possible.
As a nation and as a collection of communities, we fail to acknowledge the gestalt of our entire economy—the contours between living with and without shelter; how current marketplace priorities punish those who endure a personal catastrophe like financial ruin, addiction or mental illness.
Given that our country has the resources to solve this problem, homelessness serves a particular purpose within our culture; it marks the struggle between the limits of individual freedom and the cost of community responsibility. No true change takes hold until voters decide that citizens living without shelter is unacceptable—choice or no choice.
Okay, so onto your question: what more can you do to bring relief to the homeless community in your neighborhood? As an individual, probably not much more than what you’re doing already. Consider that there are a number of dimensions—social, political, economic—to this crisis, where others are already at work to bring about change.
Homelessness poses a crisis of faith in ourselves—as individuals, we're resigned to the position that nothing can be done for so deep and widespread a national misfortune. And for most it has not been a misfortune that touches us all personally. Living as if we are inoculated from such a catastrophe prevents us from acknowledging its urgency. You are in a position to convey that urgency, as you have done in writing and sharing with your friends. Personalizing the suffering of others initiates the change of hearts and minds that a permanent solution will require.