Monday, July 16, 2007

The homeless couple (part 1)

Note: I know that homelessness—like all ills of our society— is not a popular topic. But in my time here in Brazil, I saw something quite unusual that puts an interesting flavor on homelessness and what it means. I have broken this post into two parts; the first (this post) talks about homelessness in general, and the second will focus on the scene that motivated this post. ***

There are homeless people everywhere, except in the poorest places of the world that amidst their poverty have learned to depend on each other to form a unit--each person working so that all may have a place to stay or food to eat. A family in such places takes on a deeper meaning than just a bunch of people united by blood.

In an ideal world, there would be no poverty, no illness, none of the plagues of society. Our world, however, is not ideal, which does not mean that we can bury the idealists in us. In fact, idealists are needed most in an imperfect world such as ours; it is the act of striving for a perfect state, condition, you name it that makes us human—a quality given to us by God himself. We may not be able to eliminate every last bit of poverty, but we certainly can reduce its prevalence. And who knows, maybe the “we can’t; it’s impossible,” that seems written on the fabric of our society is just a hint of the limits of realism, and maybe we need to don a new garment of thinking.

It is heartbreaking to see homeless people around; they are hard to miss, yet so easily ignored. Many are covered in layers of dirty clothes and produce a stench that makes a passerby unwilling to breathe. As I pass by them, my mind cycles through a variety of emotions, none of them positive. Even my body is uneasy—I am walking too slowly, yet not slowly enough. In downtown Washington, DC where I live, for example, poverty and wealth live right next door to each other, with only a vaguely forgotten line to separate them. It is not unusual that right next to a five-star hotel is a person sleeping on the floor, in the cold of winter. What can you do about such a sight? I can’t pretend that I didn’t register the scene before me, yet I can’t offer him or her place in my apartment for all sorts of reasons. What do you do with such a scene? Maybe you leave some money, but they’re still outside, in the cold, homeless. I can’t help the guilt I feel that I have a home but they don’t, but more importantly that I can’t do much about it. Yes, there are homeless shelters, but they seem deficient or unsafe enough to cause some homeless people to prefer to sleep on the streets than stay in a shelter.

How does a person become homeless in America—-the land of abundance, the land of dreams and opportunities? Where is his or her family or friends? How did he or she get to this point in life? What did they do wrong? Does laziness and lack of self-motivation explain it? What happened in the lives of these individuals and how can we alter it or prevent it in others?

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