Thinking about the homeless at Thanksgiving

In her 1982 book, “Surviving Hard Times: The Working People of Lowell,” historian Mary Blewett has a chapter about policies in the city of Lowell towards the poor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here is part of what she wrote:

Poverty was regarded, in almost all cases, as inexcusable. Most middle-class Americans believed that hard work alone led to individual success. This idea was so central to American thinking in the late nineteenth century that the poor were themselves blamed for their condition. It was not society’s fault if they could not properly support themselves. The problem was the individual; he or she was lazy or intemperate . . . Municipal policy toward the poor made sure that there was no escape from the humiliation and degradation of poverty. The poor, including the sick, the aged, the insane, and children of paupers or criminals were all considered as misfits and placed together, at the lowest possible cost, at the City Farm.

Listening to the city council debate a few weeks ago on the new anti-panhandling ordinance and discussing it with a number of people since then has convinced me that not much has changed, at least regarding middle class attitudes toward the poor. Sure, most people will donate money to charities that care for the poor, especially at this time of the year, but homelessness and poverty are incredibly complicated issues that defy easy solutions.

From time to time throughout the coming winter, I hope to research and write about this topic. Just yesterday, I spoke with a person whose job brings him into daily contact with homeless individuals and families. He cautioned against the tendency to lump everyone who receives subsidized housing or food stamps into the same category as the truly homeless. For the most part, the survival needs of the former are being met while those of the latter are not. Sometimes that’s because well-meaning programs, both governmental and non-profit, frequently miss the mark. It’s also because the individuals who are homeless often confront addiction and mental illness without access to effective treatment. I asked what were the three biggest myths around homelessness. Here is what he said:

Myth 1 – “People choose to be homeless.” They do not; they have no other option.

Myth 2 – “They’re not from here.” If they are homeless, they don’t have a home so they really are from wherever they happen to be at that moment.

Myth 3 – “We will someday end homelessness.” It will always be with us; it’s just a question of how effectively we can address it.

I believe that how we as individuals and as a community deal with the poorest among us says much about us. I’m not sure we’re doing a very good job of it in 2013. Certainly toss a dollar in the kettle when you’re out shopping on Black Friday, but don’t leave it at that. Money is important but it’s compassion, understanding and a commitment to long-term and effective policies that will truly make a difference.

3 Responses to Thinking about the homeless at Thanksgiving

  1. Paul Belley says:

    Thanks Richard.
    I was thinking about the homeless this morning as I stepped outside to tie up Brady my yellow lab. Last night two of my customers came into the packy to get a pint of vodka,I smelled the campfire on them before I saw them.

    Ty and Joe have been living outside for 8yrs. They used to live on the riverbanks at the Beaverbrook Camps. They are not bad guys ,they get their SS check and don’t bother anyone. After they cleared the homeless off the riverbanks CTI did find housing for Ty and Joe but after living outside for so long they told me they felt like they were in prison.

    So what do we do with people like Ty and Joe? As you said Dick it is a complicated problem. When we could see the camps we good reach out to them but now Ty and Joe have gone deeper and keep their location a secret. I have to agree with you that as a city we have not done a good job in addressing the poor.

  2. ErikGitschier says:

    We have colleges here that are teaching our future generations human services. Why not have the students from our colleges do studies, actual studies listening to the homeless? Paul just shared something most people probably don’t understand. If we had studies on our area homeless we may be able to find actual solutions for some. I believe we all care but we just don’t know enough about the homeless in our area. We have made decisions based on appearance not on actual solutions.