Compassion for Homeless People Only Lasts 20 Years


Two decades are about the outside limits of people’s patience for compassion and service to the downtrodden.  Cleveland has now reached the 20th year of the homeless crisis, and we are seeing a new series of measurers to make it illegal to be poor and an effort to remove homeless people from the public eye.  It no longer matters that the face of homelessness is a young person or that families are breaking up when they become homeless because we are not responding appropriately to the unstable housing market.

It no longer matters that homeless people are attacked just for being homeless in public.  Some even view it as entertaining.  It no longer matters that people are discharged from the hospitals to the shelters or that men and women who bravely serve their country during Vietnam, Iraq I Iraq II are now living in the shelters.

Cleveland was one of the last cities to reach this point.  Our strong history with religion and the labor movement has always had a major influence on politics, and often made Cleveland a center for progressive thinking.  For instance, we were one of the last cities in America to pass a panhandling ordinance.  Unfortunately, this opened the flood gates for a serious of measures that attempt to make homeless people invisible.

We hear only a whimper now when the government makes law directed at homeless people.  Cleveland’s own Harry Potter, Joe Cimperman, used his magic wand to make homeless people disappear from Public Square with a curfew.  As the curfew went into effect, a ban of the distribution of food was also instituted at all of the downtown parks.  The City suddenly began enforcing an archaic requirement for a license that had not been enforced for over 20 years.

A lot of this is our own fault.  It is the fault of the service providers who have squandered the heaps of money thrown at the problem for 30 years.  We have not policed ourselves very well, and we spend $30,000 or $40,000 or even $55,000 to place one into housing in this community.  Taxpayers see this and think, “what a waste.”

We have concentrated so much time and so many resources on pulling out bodies that we forgot to solve the problems associated with homelessness.  We have let the federal government off the hook by allowing them to steal resource from housing, job training, re-entry programs, and health care to pay off ridiculous debts, wars, and health insurance costs.  We have let the state of Ohio off the hook by taking money from welfare, healthcare, and social support service and giving us tax breaks instead of giving homeless people a break.

We have trusted government too much.  We actually believed what elected officials told us when they said that they would close the asylums and give us more money in “community care.”  We believed them when they told us they would take down ghettos and spread affordable housing throughout the community.  And we were suckered into believing that welfare reform would end reliance on government in favor of jobs that could actually support a family.

We were foolish not to understand that the “war on drugs” was actually code for a “war on people who aren’t white,” just as many understand that No Section 8” is often

Code for “no black tenants.”

The bottom line is that 20 years is apparently the outside limit for compassion here in America.  In order to avid donor fatigue, crises must be solved in less than 20 years or they will never get solved.

Do you hear me, New Orleans?  Your city has 17 years left before America turns its back on you. Or maybe there is a New Orleans exception to this rule, and we turn our backs in 20 weeks, since we’re still failing that fair city.

Here in Cleveland, we’re turning our back on our own citizens in need.  Rather than combat poverty, we combat panhandlers by putting up big posters that say most people who ask for money are scammers.  Our leading churches are now telling us not to give directly to the needy but to them instead.  Isn’t this in direct contrast to the message given by the founders of their religion, Jesus Christ?

“The young man said to him, ‘All these things have I have observed: what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me.’”

 By contrast, the faces of homeless kids on posters helped raise money, but not for those kids.  Many of those kids are not the older men we see struggling to get food in advertisements in the sports section.  We may still give money during the holidays or volunteer, or watch a sitcom about volunteering, in a soup kitchen, but we have resolved ourselves to forever stepping over homeless people in our city. 

Collectively, we don’t care about homeless people as much as we did in the 1980s, a decade famed for glorifying greed.  We just don’t have time anymore for people without homes.  It is sad to realize that compassion has an expiration date, but once we accept this reality, we can begin to plan for a future based on a  shortage of kindness.

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Grapevine in 2007.