Someone, who is less than neatly dressed, pushing a shopping cart laden with all of their worldly possessions; a person trudging along the sidewalk beneath the weight of an overstuffed backpack; someone who is asking for spare change or perhaps standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign.
It’s the appearance that gives them away. And, based on visual clues, these are the types of persons most of us recognize as being our nations’ homeless.
However, because these individuals are those we visually "recognize" as being homeless, we fail to realize that homelessness isn’t always clearly apparent. Sometimes, homelessness is occurring right under our noses, completely unnoticed.
This past weekend, for example, I read an article in USA Today that reported a sharp increase in the numbers of homeless students in the United States.
Citing a joint report from two homeless advocacy groups, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) and First Focus, the article pointed out that "Nearly 1 million homeless students attended public schools in 2008-09, a 41% increase over the previous two years…"
According to the NAEHCY/First Focus report itself:
"The economic downturn has forced more families and youth to lose their footing, falling downward into the spiral of homelessness and jeopardizing children and youth’s educational success."
But the numbers put forth by the report aren’t just taken out of thin air. They are – as the report points out – taken from "… recently released federal data shows that the number of homeless children and youth identified in public schools has increased for the second year in a row…"
What disturbs me greatly about this is that we have the wherewithal to have prevented it in the first place.
We can moan and belly-ache all we want to about the state of the economy. We can boo-hoo about how funding is scare. But the reality is that homeless advocacy groups have been warning us about the increasing numbers of homeless children and youth for well over a decade. They pleaded with us to do something to prevent the increase.
We had ample warnings. Yet, when we had the opportunity to set effective safety nets in place, we chose instead to irresponsibly ignore those warnings. Consequently, nearly a million children experienced homelessness during the 2008-09 school year.
That’s not something we, as a nation, should be proud of. If anything, it should make us question our priorities.
It’s almost as though we’ve become addicted to saying "no" to anything which has the potential to reduce the numbers of homeless in our communities.
Day after day, I read news articles of some community where creating or expanding services for the homeless is proposed. And invariably, out come the naysayers and the fear-mongers who, because they shout, complain, throw temper-tantrums and – in some instances – make threats, are able to influence local leaders to abandon or postpone providing services to the homeless.
What those local officials fail to realize is that by caving into the naysayers they are, in all reality, hurting their community in the long run. Because by the time they get around to actually providing adequate services for the homeless, the issue has become all the more unwieldy – and all the more costly.
I can understand how some may view the homeless with distaste (based on their visual perceptions of what "type" of person becomes homeless) and therefore be resistant to providing services to them.
However, by refusing to offer services because of those homeless who seemingly do not want to be helped, they are also denying services to families and children who are homeless.
In essence, an entire segment of the community is being penalized because of a handful of "bad apples."
All of which makes me wonder.
Would the naysayers and fear-mongers be as strongly opposed to providing homeless services if they and their children suddenly found themselves on the streets? Or would they be the biggest whiners about the lack of those services?