Citizens Ask Where Do We Go from Here?

by Donald Whitehead

There are many theories on where we are headed in this country. The forecast for the homeless and low-income people is considerably pessimistic according to most. The United States Government in its efforts to balance its budget has decided that it will no longer be responsible for the poor, the disabled, children, or the elderly. Recent legislation aimed at cutting spending has targeted those with the least resources.

Welfare reform, or the “homeless creation bill” as many advocates call it, is expected to have a devastating effect on people without homes in this country. Cuts in HUD appropriations, downsizing public housing, losses of project based Section 8 housing and a widening gap in affordable housing will have a devastating effect on those without homes. While the opinions of advocates, who fight everyday to end this attack on the poor and disenfranchised, are much needed and extremely valuable, it is impossible to feel the true sense of hopelessness unless you hear from the homeless themselves. The following is an attempt to let you hear from those involved directly:

When I first began this article, I had some pre-conceived notions about what my responses would be. I feel that I am truly in touch with people without homes, being formerly without a home myself, and an outreach worker. I am in constant contact with people without homes.

The people I talked to came from many different age groups, races, and ethnic backgrounds. In order to keep from scaring people away I decided to keep this a very simple interview. In fact I only asked two very simple questions: “Where do you feel you’ll be in three years, “ and “Where do you feel homelessness will be in three years.”

While most people felt that their personal lives would improve (this was especially true for the females I interviewed), they thought that homelessness would get extremely worse. Some people had laid out three-year plans. “I will have enough money to move back to Louisville in 3 months, in six months I will meet a man that doesn’t think I’m a punching bag, and three years from now we’ll be married,” said one young lady in her mid - twenties. I paused waiting to hear “and we’ll live happily ever after” but the last part never came. She went on to discuss in detail the new welfare cuts, cuts to SSI and cuts in public housing; explaining her fear for working mothers losing child care subsidies “If people don’t have baby-sitters they can’t possibly work, that’s wrong. It seems like they are trying to put people on welfare not take them off,” she said with a tone that had turned angry all of a sudden.

Some people thought welfare reform was good. “If they can’t get them checks no more they gonna have to get busy,” said a long time shelter resident as he read a magazine in the public library obviously annoyed by my intrusion. “I just hope that people will wake up and stop living off the system,” was my next answer from a young lady who was just finishing her lunch at the Drop-Inn-Center. Being a little puzzled I asked about her situation. “Oh me, I’m just gonna be here for a couple of days. I’m not like these other people.”

The most common sentiment I got was fear. In the over fifty interviews I conducted, “dead” or “death” was a response far to many times for this writer. The fear I heard was the fear you feel in the pit of your stomach before the big game, a fear so heavy that it’s paralyzing in its intensity. “People gonna start doing whatever to survive, man. You might start getting yo groceries snatched at the grocery store,” remarked a gentlemen from the Drop-Inn-Center treatment program. A very frightening statement from someone who should be one of the most optimistic among people without homes.

I even heard fear from the fearless. “I ain’t never seen it this bad. All kinds of women and kids at soup kitchens, pretty soon there ain’t gone be enough soup kitchens and then people be dying in the street,” said a self-proclaimed hobo, long thought to be the most fearless among people without homes. I found this interview stimulating. I had never met a self-proclaimed hobo before. Actually there were three of them, telling me that in three years they would all just be still “ridin the rails” as they hurried away.

One reason for fear by many was the untimely and tragic death of buddy gray. “With buddy gone we don’t have no body talkin for us,” replied a Hispanic male in Washington Park. There was talk about homeless hate crimes. “They been arresting homeless folk in other cities it will be happening here pretty soon, just wait and see,” said a panhandler in front of a downtown Walgreens store. Other people spoke of Armageddon, race war, revolutions, and the second coming of Jesus.

The common thread to all the interviews was fear, a fear of the unknown. My question was what do homeless people or people without homes feel about the future. The answer is loud and clear, fear—unprecedented fear. Let us hope that the people without homes are as wrong as the so-called experts and things don’t turn out the way the real experts think. Our job as advocates is to take that fear and transform it into anger. The fear can, as I mentioned earlier, be paralyzing. If the fear becomes anger it can be positively used to organize and mobilize people into a force to be heard. In many instances in the history of the United States it was only after people’s fear became anger, and that anger spurned organized and non-violent mobilization by those effected that there was change. Poor people’s voices are sometimes a whisper and therefore can be easily ignored. It is only when the whispers join to become a roar that change can and will happen.           

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March 1997-April 1997 Issue 20