Friday, August 5, 2016

Sacks, Not Spikes, for Those Without Homes

When my firstborn was five or six, she’d be with me on Wednesday nights and every other weekend. I had a small but cool one-bedroom apartment in an old building across from a park right downtown. (I sometimes rode my bike to work.) We used to enjoy kneeling on the couch in front of the window at night and watching the fountain in the middle of the park change colors. The water shooting up from the middle of the fountain would be red for 30 seconds, then blue, then green, then yellow, then white, and then back to red.

Amelia and me in front of her home
We also saw homeless people laying on the park’s benches and sleeping under trees. Amelia found it confusing and distressing that in this big city, this big country with all of these houses and buildings, people would have to live and sleep outside. Michigan winters are not the nicest – in fact, they get worse with each passing year, it seems – and Amelia was almost in tears when she asked me if people are homeless all the time or just in the summer. Her mother and I had embraced the “We Don’t Lie to Our Children” parenting philosophy so I sighed and responded that homelessness was a year-round thing.

When she asked what the President was doing about this, I said I wasn’t sure but it’s been a problem for a long time and will probably take a long time to fix too. I started to explain that homelessness was one of many problems that we needed to fix and some people thought other problems should be fixed first and she interrupted me, saying, “That’s not the right thing! Everybody should do something and maybe let these people come into their houses right now.”

I made a mental note to vote for Amelia Diehl if she ever ran for President.

One day when Amelia was with me – I can’t remember if it was a Saturday or Sunday but I know it was in the fall because leaves were on the ground and it wasn’t warm – she happened to look out the window and noticed a bearded man in a trench coat sitting on the park bench closest to our building. “He looks hungry,” she said. Instead of asking what hungry looks like, which was my first thought, it occurred to me that we could take action, at least to help this one man. So I suggested we make the guy a sack lunch. (I had all the stuff – sandwich fixins,’ Snack Pack pudding, fruit, juice pouch – for Thursday mornings when I had to send Amelia off to school with a lunch.) Amelia liked the idea.

Ten minutes later we were crossing the street and heading toward the man on the bench. I made Amelia stop and wait a few yards before we reached him (just in case he had mental health issues and/or a gun) and she watched as I held the bag out to him and mumbled, “We made you lunch.” He snatched – yes, snatched – the bag out of my hand wordlessly; I waited a few seconds, then turned around and headed back out of the park with my daughter. As we were crossing the street, she asked, “What did he say, Daddy?” “He thanked us,” I lied.

I thought about that day so many years ago – Amelia’s 25 now – when I stumbled across a story a few days ago announcing that 33 cities in the U.S. have already implemented “Do Not Feed the Homeless” policies, with more expected. At least four municipalities – Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Daytona Beach, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Birmingham, Alabama – have actually fined, removed, or threatened prison time to individuals and organizations that have fed the homeless.

I’m not surprised that Birmingham, which is not exactly a harbinger of human rights or an oasis of wisdom and enlightenment, is on the list; I didn’t expect the others to respond to the crisis with intolerance policies.

Even worse, some municipalities have taken to employing “defensive architecture” to deter people from sitting or lying in certain places. “Defensive architecture” can be defined as “We’re Such Pricks That We’ve Installed Spikes to Prevent People from Crashing Here.”

I don’t know how these city planners can sleep at night.

For those who like numbers and studies, there are plenty of them about homelessness:

Research found that homeless kids are more likely to struggle in school, drop out of high school and suffer from mental illness. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a 2011 report stating that homelessness may impair brain development in very young children, interfering with learning and cognitive skills. Runaway teens are more likely to be incarcerated, be trapped into sex trafficking and commit suicide.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Michigan ranks 29th in affordable housing in 2014 among U.S. states, with 50th being the least expensive state.

Another study found that there were nearly 80,000 homeless children in Michigan in 2013 and an estimated 2.5 million nationwide.

In 2014, 97,642 homeless individuals were counted in Michigan. There were 15,861 families with children. The average age of “unaccompanied youth,” a category used by the experts, was 16; 58 percent were female and 76 percent had “primary mental health disabilities.”

In that same year, over 60 percent of Michigan’s homeless single adults were male and 68 percent were mentally ill. Of the 5,627 veterans who were counted, 86 percent were male. And 8,881 seniors (people 55 or older) were counted in 2014; 53 percent had mental health disorders and 56 percent were African-American.

The final statistic I’ll share here: 128 of those experiencing homelessness in 2014 died on the streets, in shelters or in specialized housing programs.

People are dying in our streets and we’re talking about the size of Donald Trump's....hands.

When folks talk about homelessness, you hear a lot of numbers and statistics (see above). You hear a lot about interagency cooperation and finite resources and affordable housing and early intervention and state and local government partnerships but less about cold, bearded men on park benches hastily snatching food or suicidal teenagers crying in doorways or exhausted, dispirited mothers crouching protectively over their sleeping children or whole families sleeping in rusty Buicks and tiny Hondas. Until the conversation becomes less academic – less about “resolving the issue through sound public policy” – and more about the human beings who are suffering, the men and women and kids who are belittled, ignored or forgotten, those who feel hopeless and desperate and resentful and ashamed and puzzled by the fact that they’re always looked at but never seen, the problem will continue to grow and be mismanaged by callous bureaucrats and short-sighted politicians.

I'm even going to stop referring to people who don't have homes as "the homeless" since that monochrome term has little to do with character, values, opinions, skills or achievements.

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small girl approaching. As the girl walked, she paused every so often and as she grew closer, the man could see that she was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The girl came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young girl paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they'll die unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The child bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

~ Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

Click here to read the “2014 State of Homelessness in Michigan” report produced by the Campaign to End Homelessness.

Click here for a directory of homeless shelters in Michigan.

Click here to read, “Top 10 Anti-Homeless Measures Used in the United States.”

Click here to read, “How Michigan Can Improve the Lives of 80,000 Homeless Children.”

Click here to read, “These anti-homeless spikes are brutal; we need to get rid of them.”

Click here to read, “How Cities Use Design to Drive Homeless People Away.”

Sources:, Michigan Campaign to End Homelessness,, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Blaze.

No comments:

Post a Comment