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Evident Problem, Invisible People

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The morning rush hour, a homeless man stands on the curb of a busy street, hands stretched out, holding a cardboard sign with washed out words saying "no home and hungry, please help." His clothes are torn, his hair oily and uncombed. This is his spot. For over a month, that same man on that same curb can be seen. People walk by; some look away, some who ignored or even acknowledged the woman who too had been holding a similar sign from the preceding block. Many turn away thinking that this man is a failure, a bum who wants money for a pack of cigarettes to fill one of the many addictions that most likely got him there in the first place. The more sympathetic throw down a couple quarters; they've done their good deed for the week. Above all, many cannot help but wonder: isn't there something profoundly wrong with a society that has so much poverty amidst so much wealth?

A 1990 New York Times poll reported that 68 percent of urban Americans see the homeless in the course of their daily routines; nationally, the figure was 54 percent, an 18 percent increase in just four years (Blau, 1992, p. 3). Living so close to New York City and growing up in Jersey City, NJ, seeing a homeless person on the street turned out to be an every day occurrence, one I always hoped to avoid. Shopping carts filled with garbage bags and raggedy clothed people were of no surprise and became of no importance in my life. My father however, always had an extreme compassion for the homeless, mainly because he was once homeless. He constantly inspired me to reach out to them, not by words but by his actions. Blinded by ignorance, my mother and I never understood why my dad chose to keep his business in the heart of Jersey City; it's hard being a hairdresser, let alone being one in the middle of poverty and economic depression, yet, he persisted and still to this day his business exists there. My father always talks about how one day he is going to open a large apartment building, bring all the homeless of Jersey City together and allow them to reside there. He knows most of the homeless around his work by name, their stories and has seen so many come and go, live and die. My father is well known in the Jersey City community for all his efforts over the 20+ years and is acknowledged by many as a man with a large heart. Being older and more enlightened to our society's problem, I see now why my father does what he does. Ignorance is no solution to any problem!

The famous English essayist and novelist Aldous Huxley once said, "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." This simple statement expresses the very essence of the attitudes towards homelessness in America. Homelessness is one of the most devastatingly overlooked crises of our time, it is nothing new but it is also nothing less than a major tragedy. The stereotypical view of Americans is that the homeless are mainly alcoholics, "druggies", mentally disabled, bums, criminals, etc.; however, they hardly constitute the majority of those with no roof over their heads. Before this paper, my views on the homeless were of the majority; I believed that most of the homeless were in fact compromised of these groups. Although those are partly reasons why one might go homeless, they also join those of the unemployed and even those who are fully employed. Homelessness affects millions of people in our nation and the number isn't getting any smaller.

It is not to anyone's surprise that many hold these views since we live in a society that emphasizes individual achievement through personal initiation; lack of success is then commonly recognized as personal failure. Roper calls this the "blame the victim" attitude, in which, people believe that the homeless by choice, are so because they are lazy and unwilling to control their addictions of drugs and/or alcohol. Roper then asks questions to these thought provoked people: "If homeless people are indeed responsible for their plight, how does one explain the rapid increase in homelessness, particularly among women with dependent children? Has the number of irresponsible or psychologically disturbed people really increased in recent years - especially among female-headed families?"(20). The answer to these questions is obvious, therefore, there has to be something deeper, something larger than just personal failures, another reason for the growing incidences of homelessness in the United States.

Homelessness has been occurring from the beginning of civilization. We hear and read about the homeless in many stories and verses from the Bible. The story about the rich man and Lazarus; Lazarus was a beggar in front of the rich man's house. More so, America's first European settlers included the homeless. The homeless problem had long existed in England, at least since the fourteenth century when the Picts, the Attacotti and the Scots revolted against their Roman lords because of high rents and slave conditions. With colonies starting to form in America, the English developed a method for dealing with the homeless: to ship the homeless and beggars to these colonies; "out of sight, out of mind". In Dublin, the homeless were sent to prison till they were shipped to plantations in America for up to seven years (Erickson, 1986, p. xx). And even when they arrived here, they were definitely unwelcome. The Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601 provided the model for poor relief in the American colonies. It formalized the practice of placing the support of dependent persons in the hands of the local communities. And still, many communities avoided supporting the poor by making it difficult for them to live. The financial statuses of strangers were closely checked before they were allowed to settle. There was a lasting period of three to twelve months before one was declared a legal resident of the community. If the poor and homeless were "warned out" of the town's borders and came back, the person would then be flogged and beat before being driven out a second time. As a result, an abundant amount of homeless wanderers emerged in the American Colonies (Caton, 1990, p. 5). New York City became the only political subdivision to offer assistance to the homeless when they opened the first almshouse (Erickson, 1986, p. xx). Institutions for the homeless began to appear in the larger towns from 1725 to 1750. Workhouses were opening in which, criminals, mentally unstable, and homeless people were put to work. Some labors included picking oakum, spinning wool and flax, knitting and sewing. For those who lived in rural districts and were completely mentally unstable, they were bid at an auction block. For the able-minded, they were put to work on farms for food, clothing and shelter. This practice progressed toward the end of the Colonial



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