Who Deserves to Be Sheltered from the Storm?

Just around the corner, a couple of blocks from our idyllic, tree-lined street, a homeless encampment has taken root on the sidewalk beside a utility building owned by AT&T. Nylon tents, food refuse, unwashed people — it’s an unlovely sight in an otherwise lovely neighborhood.

Many of the wealthy homeowners in the area have taken to community message boards to voice their displeasure. Something must be done!

The local correspondents wonder why successful achievers who pay dearly to live in this neighborhood should be forced to view such unpleasant images through the window of their luxury SUV? Why aren’t the police sweeping the homeless away in paddy wagons? Why isn’t the Public Works Department sweeping the homeless away with industrial street cleaners? Why isn’t someone with political power erasing the blight on our otherwise pristine neighborhood?

Some of the same people calling for the removal of the unsightly homeless are simultaneously soliciting donations for the recovery and clean-up of Houston and Florida in the wake of terrible winds and rains.  Our office got one electronic plea headlined “Help Our Houston Brothers and Sisters Stay Dry!” The nice lady proposed that our Sunset Square association send a box of blankets to Texas.

The logic seems to go like this: People who once owned their own home deserve a replacement; those who never owned their own home don’t deserve one in the first place.

Another way of looking at it: Victims of natural disasters are good people like me and you who had the awful bad luck of living in the path of a hurricane, whereas homeless people camping on the street are victims of their poor decisions and, ergo, are undeserving of organized charity. Never mind that building your home in a known hurricane target might by some measures be considered a “poor decision.” The underlying assumption about the homeless is that if they’re living on the street they somehow brought this on themselves. They’re the perpetrators of their own demise.

Yes, they’re victims of a sort. But homeless people aren’t merely self-sabotagers. They’re the predictable, unsurprising byproduct of a toxic system founded on debased values. That homelessness is both utterly inevitable and totally preventable is one of the great tragedies of modern America, a stain on our national fabric that no amount of newly minted millionaires can scrub away. So long as we continue to organize ourselves around the principles of greed, self-enrichment, and “survival of the fittest,” so long as we dedicate our national treasure to war-making and imprisonment instead of education and healthcare, we’ll continue to deposit our societal excretions on city sidewalks, where it’s getting increasingly difficult not to step on our own waste.

Poor us. And poor Joe and poor Jane, huddled in their tent on Martel Avenue, steps away from glamorous Sunset Boulevard. They didn’t have the foresight to be nearly drowned in a flood. They didn’t make a down payment and maintain a mortgage, so they didn’t have the opportunity to watch the roof of their house get blown off by a tornado. Still, Homeless Joe and Jane need help. They need their “brothers and sisters” to care about them as though they’d been the victims of extreme weather.

For some reason we can’t. My society can’t, my country can’t, my state can’t, my city can’t, my own neighborhood can’t. We don’t see the homeless as versions of us; we see them as detritus.

In heartless times like these, some of us ask “What would Jesus do?”

He would weep.


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