A mother and three children become homeless after police charge their landlord with sexually abusing one of the kids. The mother did everything right: worked, called her town’s social services, looked for apartments, called the state, looked for space in shelters. She got relief only after a newspaper reporter started making calls about her. Many, many others are still on the streets.
Advocates are rightly calling for public testimony and outcry, most urgently this week as lawmakers debate the Governor’s latest round of cuts, which weigh heavily on programs that serve poor people.
It seems like we’ve stopped asking important and fundamental questions:
How many toddlers separated from their mothers by the lack of affordable housing is too many? How many people and families can work hard and yet lose their homes and savings – and almost inevitably wind up in a homeless shelter, or on the street if the shelter is full.
Is a child going to have to die on the street before we say: Enough?
Our common understanding of our obligation to other citizens, and of our collective ability and obligation to help each other, has become horribly warped. We have this notion that the poor will always be with us, that people who work hard and “play by the rules” are somehow protected from falling into poverty and homelessness. We have this idea that just trying hard enough will let you earn a home and a life you can keep – just by persevering and continuing to work at that American dream.
That’s increasingly false. Economists show over and over that workers’ earnings have been flat in real dollars for decades as the cost of housing, food, insurance and other necessities all goes up. Families feel like they are working as hard as they can to keep from falling behind on a hamster wheel. They’re right.
But another misperception is even worse – that we can’t do anything about it.
Many, many programs and policies get people back on their feet every day, by helping reduce the structural chasm between what they can afford and the cost of the necessities of living. It’s not rocket science. We know what works and we know how to do it. We just lack the public will.
Most journalism today seems out to report scandal and scandal alone, and when it covers non-profits or human services at all is too often to report or magnify bad management or malfeasance. After working for years as a journalist, and longer for several anti-poverty agencies, I am sure that the proportion of the non-profits quietly accomplishing their missions and changing lives to those that fudge their books or operate out of greed is far, far higher than you would think from reading the paper. These quiet success stories – of families being able to afford better food, good day care, or to save money because their housing costs are more proportionate to their income – save the public millions of dollars and make our communities and our state a better place to live. But they sure don’t lead the news.
In 1981, Hartford opened homeless shelters after a man died on a church’s front steps. Haven’t we learned anything?
The cry that we need to cut costs to balance the budget represents a false choice. Cutting these programs deepens the spiral, creating more human misery and increased costs later. We have not yet told emergency rooms to turn away sick people when they have no insurance or money to pay. These programs are investments in the basic human infrastructure of a sane and civilized society. To cut these programs it to say, it’s okay for those shelters to turn families out to the streets. It’s okay to lock people up more and more people then just open the prison doors and let people out with no home, no one who will hire them, no support, and no hope.
It’s a shame that people who prevent homelessness, and who improve public safety and the quality of life for all of us, have to continually confront the legislature and protect their work. Yet we do, and we will.
But we should be asking the larger questions as well.
What kind of state do we want to live in? Don’t people have the right to decent housing, to food, to earn a living, just by dint of being human? Don’t we owe each other anything?
The author of this editorial is the Vice President of Development at Career Resources in Bridgeport, on the Board of Connecticut Association of Non-Profits, and works with the Sheff Movement