The following is an excerpt from Dan’s op ed published by the Register Guard on Sunday, April 24, on behalf of the Poverty and Homelessness Board of Lane County for which Dan is the Vice Chair.
What defines our humanity? From our days as cave dwellers to the present, we human beings have made homes for ourselves as best as we are able: places to be, where we seek safety from the elements, where we sleep, keep our belongings, fix our meals and raise our families. To thrive as human beings we each need a home. Without a home, mere existence becomes an epic struggle.
A stigma and shame often comes with being homeless. But the real shame is that we have made it nearly impossible for the poorest of the poor to live with any dignity among us. Meanwhile, with too few places where the homeless can go, we continually expand the places where they cannot go, and then wonder why so many gather in the few remaining places where they still have a right to be. From my years in Germany and then in graduate school studying the Holocaust, I learned this critical lesson: Once you deny the right of people to exist in a certain place, it becomes a very short step to denying them the right to exist at all. Thus I ask: What defines our humanity, if not how we respond to the homeless in our midst?
Consider that more than a third of those living on the streets today are there because of a mental health issue. Would anyone blame the mentally ill for a condition with which they were either born or resulted from a traumatic injury to their psyche? That county jails today are the No. 1 provider of mental health services is not an indictment on the mentally ill; it is an indictment on society. Who is more guilty: the mentally ill in our jails, or those who created the system that puts them there?
Drug and alcohol addictions, another very common ailment among the homeless, have been considered for many decades by the medical community not as failures of morality or will, but as ailments requiring treatment. Why, then, do we expect addicts to magically quit their addictions before we will provide them a place to sleep? Or as one person told me, “Life on the street is so hard, why wouldn’t I take something if it makes me feel better?”
Then there are those with neither addictions nor mental illness who are homeless simply by the virtue of their poverty, low income and the high cost of housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released statistics recently showing that one in four renters pay half of their income on housing. A head of household earning the minimum wage currently cannot afford the rent of a two-bedroom apartment for his or her family anywhere in the United States. Today 12 million Americans are at risk of becoming homeless simply because they cannot afford their rent.
So let’s be clear: The problem is not the homeless. The problem is the lack of affordable housing and shelter for those who cannot provide their own. The problem is the lack of adequate treatment options for those with addictions they cannot control. The problem is an inadequate mental health system to provide for the most vulnerable of our citizens. The problem is dysfunctional families with too few places to go for help and a dysfunctional system with too few people to provide the assistance needed. In other words, it’s not their problem — it’s our problem. And it is a problem that affects all of us, not just those without shelter.
Our response as a community to the challenge of homelessness is a good part of what defines our humanity. We can and must do better, for humanity’s sake.