The "Cut Off" Point

Posted: July 18, 2008 in Bureauacracy, Discrimination, Government, Homelessness, Housing, Morality

There are two news items I’ve been keeping an eye on: the California wildfires; and a major screw up by FEMA with regards to supplies that were meant for Hurricane Katrina victims but were distributed to everywhere except where they were supposed to be delivered.  

It’s been three years since Hurricane Katrina. But quite a high number of its victims are still living homeless on the streets of New Orleans. The number of homeless presently in New Orleans is double of what it had been prior to Hurricane Katrina. So, this begs several questions: How can this be? Why haven’t these folks been given the help needed to rebuild their lives? And, why is it that we seem to have forgotten all about them?

What bothers me most about all of this is that now these folks, who have become homeless because of a natural disaster, no longer seem to be viewed as victims. They are being viewed as just homeless. And, because of the many stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness, many of them are being classified as drunks, drug addicts, and just bums in general.

When did they go from being victims to being derelicts? Was it a few weeks after Katrina? A few months? One year? When?

Or is it that we have such a short term memory as a society that we’ve become indifferent? Is our attention span that miniscule? Are we that polluted with an American Idol mentality?

The reality is this: those folks who are homeless because of Hurricane Katrina are victims. They didn’t wake up one morning and say to themselves: "Today, I’m going to go live under a bridge so that the rest of the community can call me a bum."

The fact that they are still homeless – three years later – is an even greater indication that they are victims. And they are being further victimized by the very society that should have literally demanded its elected leaders to get off of their lazy butts and do what was needed to help these folks. Instead, the Mayor of New Orleans has been quoted as saying that the solution to homelessness in his city is to provide the homeless with a one-way bus ticket out of town. How despicable!

But it still causes me to wonder, when does a person who finds themselves homeless go from being seen as victim to being viewed as a bum. And why?

Consider these opening sentences from yesterday’s news article, Little foreclosure relief seen from housing bill, on the MSNBC website,

After a year of debate, Congress appears close to passing a bill intended to stem the rising tide of home foreclosures and stabilize the shaky housing market.

But even if the bill wins final passage – far from a certainty – the most optimistic forecasts suggest it would help only about 400,000 of the estimated 3 million homeowners who will likely lose their homes in the next year.

If the "optimistic forecasts" are fairly accurate, then there will be about 2.6 million folks who will lose their homes.

Some of those folks will probably be able to find somewhere else to live. Some may be able to rent a place; others might end up doubling up with family or friends. Yet – while I don’t want to make dire or negative predictions – I think it would be realistic to say that at least a handful of those folks are going to find themselves homeless. When they become homeless it won’t be because they’re "bad" people, it will be because the current economic situation in the nation stinks.

Basically, they will be victims of circumstance. And that’s the way most people will see them: as victims – at least at first that’s how they’ll be seen. But, if they remain homeless a long period of time, others around them will begin to view them differently. They will no longer be seen as victims. They will be seen as lazy or unwilling to help themselves. Some will even begin to believe that these folks choose to remain homeless; that they don’t have what it takes or the desire to turn their circumstances around.

There are folks who are able to move out of homelessness within a relatively short period of time. For others however, it can take substantially longer.

We’ll applaud those that get out of homelessness as quickly as possible. But we’ll jeer, assign blame and stigmatize those for whom homelessness becomes a lengthy episode.

I wonder though… what’s the "cut off" point? When do we begin to think less of a person who – as a victim of circumstances – has become homeless?

But mostly I wonder why there is a "cut off" point at all?

It seems petty to me.

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Comments
  1. Marie says:

    yesterday a talk radio show featured the author of “Ask Amy”. during the interview, she said that more and more the people who write to her are writing on the same theme: how to cope with the new economy. People want to know what to do with the brother, cousin, uncle, sister or parent who asked to stay with them for a few weeks until they could get back on their feet but are still not able to support themselves six months later. She said people want to know how to deal with the problems caused by over crowding in the family home. “How can we get this person out of the house? They have been here too long. We are running out of food. We don’t have enough money for gas.”

    It was a heart rending hour.

    The answers she gave were along the lines of what a family therapist might suggest for working out problems of daily living. What I found interesting is that the show did nothing in the way of providing people with information about how to gain access to their local community food bank or any other support service that might help people to solve the real problem: how to cope with a failing economy.

    You are so right, Michael, we are about to see the numbers of homeless rise. And I think it is about time we got rid of the stigma before it causes more people to suffer.

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