Two of my favorite fiction writers, Danielle Steel and John Grisham, have written on the subject of homelessness. Danielle Steel wrote, “A Gift of Hope: Helping the Homeless,” published in 2012, which is a non-fiction book about her eleven years of working with the homeless on the streets of San Francisco. A brief introduction to her book states:
For eleven years, Danielle Steel took to the streets with a small team to help the homeless of San Francisco. She worked anonymously, visiting the “cribs” of the city’s most vulnerable citizens under cover of darkness, distributing food, clothing, bedding, tools, and toiletries. She sought no publicity for her efforts and remained anonymous throughout. Now she is speaking to bring attention to their plight.
In this unflinchingly honest and deeply moving memoir, the famously private author speaks out publicly for the first time about her work among the most desperate members of our society. She offers achingly acute portraits of the people she met along the way—and issues a heartfelt call for more effective action to aid this vast, deprived population. Determined to supply the homeless with the basic necessities to keep them alive, she ends up giving them something far more powerful: a voice. (Quote source here.)
John Grisham wrote a novel, “The Street Lawyer,” published in 1998, where his main character, a lawyer named Michael Brock, is thrown into the world of the homeless that includes clear descriptions of what that world looks like and it should make anyone with a conscience cringe. A brief introduction to his book states:
Michael was in a hurry. He was scrambling up the ladder at Drake & Sweeney, a giant D.C. law firm with eight hundred lawyers. The money was good and getting better; a partnership was three years away. He was a rising star with no time to waste, no time to stop, no time to toss a few coins into the cups of panhandlers. No time for a conscience.
But a violent encounter with a homeless man stopped him cold. Michael survived; his assailant did not. Who was this man? Michael did some digging, and learned that he was a mentally ill veteran who’d been in and out of shelters for many years. Then Michael dug a little deeper, and found a dirty secret, and the secret involved Drake & Sweeney. (Quote source here.)
Add to these two books a third book that I found on a bargain book shelf titled, “Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?” (2013), written by Jim Ziolkowski, founder of buildOn, a nonprofit organization he started to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education, and James S. Hirsch, a bestselling author who has written on race, sports, and the human drama behind topics ranging from the military to medicine. The inside front cover of the book states:
The story of real change can start with one person.
Twenty-one years ago, Jim Ziolzowski gave up a fast-track career in corporate finance to dedicate his life to buildOn, an organization that turns inner-city teens into community leaders at home and abroad. He set out to show not that he could change the world, but how each one of us can–through the power of service to others.
Today, buildOn students have contributed more than 1.2 million hours of service, from Detroit and the South Bronx to Haiti, Mali, and Nepal, while building more than five hundred fifty schools worldwide. Together, they are breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations in their own lives and transforming their communities.
An international chronicle of faith and the boundless potential of the human spirit, Walk in Their Shoes tells the story of Jim’s movement and the thousands of young people who have decided to step forward, step up, and make a difference. (Quote from inside front cover.)
Homelessness . . . it’s a topic most of us want to ignore, yet it is an ever growing problem across our nation and the world. In an article titled, “Do You Ignore Homeless People?”, written by Alyssa Figueroa and published on AlterNet on January 29, 2013, our own perceptions and the inability of people to identify with the homeless are the primary reasons behind why most of us ignore the homeless. In a statement in the article by Paul Boden, “who was once homeless for several years, and is now the organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which works to expose and eliminate the root causes of poverty and homelessness” (quote source here), he states:
We have demonized homeless people so much over the last 30 years that passersby don’t think they can ever end up on the street because they’re not crazy, they’re not drug addicted, they’re not alcoholics and they’re not stupid. (Quote source here.)
The article is both eye-opening and shocking. Boden also stated in the article:
An overwhelming majority of people that walk past panhandlers ignore them or say something rude or look at them like they’re scum. And then you get a couple people that feel empathy to it and give. And then you get other people that, at the very least, look them in the eye and say, ‘Sorry dude, I can’t do it today.
The article also states that one of the obvious reasons people react differently to panhandlers is their varying perceptions of homeless people:
“People have these attitudes — that they’re lazy, that they deserve what they get, they haven’t worked hard, they’re just looking for a handout. … and people with these attitudes lack compassion,” said Paul Toro, a psychology professor at Wayne State University who studies the public’s perception of poverty and homelessness.
In his research, Toro found that compared to other countries, people who live in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that have more capitalistic economies and offer fewer social services, are more likely to believe personal failings are the primary cause of homelessness and feel less compassion for homeless people. Meanwhile, these countries have higher rates of homelessness than, for example, Germany, where there is a guaranteed minimum income, more generous unemployment benefits and more rigorous tenants’ rights.
Still, Toro said, the majority of people in the United States have compassion for the homeless.
“There is no compassion fatigue like there was in the media for awhile,” he said. “The media has compassion fatigue starting in the ’90s, and then their interest in homelessness gets kind of leveled off, but the public hasn’t.”
Toro also found in his research that most people — about 60 percent — state they are even willing to pay more taxes to help homeless people. (Quote source here.)
Still, most people pass by the homeless and look the other way when they encounter them. Ambiguity is part of it–from people who don’t believe they could ever end up like that (e.g., homeless) to those who are all-too-aware that it could happen to them and they just want to ignore the issue. Regarding the latter, the article stated, “nearly 40 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and thus can be homeless in a matter of months if laid off.”
Homelessness in America is a “revolving-door” crisis. Many people exit homelessness quickly, but many more individuals become homeless every day. During a given year’s, four or five times as many people experience homelessness as are homeless on any particular day. On any given day, at least 800,000 people are homeless in the United States, including about 200,000 children in homeless families. Calculations from different sources show that at least 2.3 million people experienced homelessness at some time during an average year. Because more families with children than unpartnered people enter and leave homelessness during a year, families represent a relatively large share of the annual population. As a result, during a typical year, between 900,000 and 1.4 million children are homeless with their families. (Quote source here.)
According to Urban Street Angels, a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization that provides care to the homeless community in San Diego, the number of homeless people in the United States by age breaks down as follows: Under 18: 23.5%; 18-24: 10.1%, and 25+: 66.4% (Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress (October 2014). Of that number, 17% of the total homeless population are military veterans (source here). The Disabled Veterans National Foundation states that “The vast majority of homeless veterans (96%) are single males from poor, disadvantaged communities. Homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America” (quote source here.)
As if this news is not shocking enough, enter into it the growing criminalization of the homeless that is happening in various cities around America. In a July 18, 2014 article published in Al Jazeera America titled, “The Growing Criminalization of the Homeless,” the author, Aaron Cantú, states the following:
As the number of homeless people in America’s major cities has increased, so have ordinances criminalizing homelessness and pushing homeless families and individuals into the criminal justice system. Criminalization has become a tactic with which politicians have reconfigured cities to serve wealthier citizens and tourists, at the considerable expense of the poor. These politicians are rarely challenged, and developers, businesses and city officials have partnered with police and private security forces to “cleanse” urban spaces by any means necessary.
A new report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found the number of cities imposing penalties for camping, begging, sleeping, sitting or eating in public has risen sharply in the last two years. There are now laws against feeding the homeless in over 50 cities. Ordinances prohibiting sleeping in cars — specifically targeted at the destitute — have more than doubled nationwide since 2011. In Denver the City Council passed a controversial “urban camping ban” in 2012 to clear space for the continued development of its downtown into a “millennial playground,” complete with nightclubs, restaurants and a miniature-golf course. Honolulu’s mayor told The New York Times he had renewed a crackdown on the homeless because tourists “want to see their paradise … [not] homeless people sleeping.” And Phoenix announced the creation of “a new organization focused on downtown’s revitalization,” while at the same time launching an initiative to arrest street people with misdemeanor warrants.
This crackdown is happening without equally forceful measures to develop the nation’s supply of affordable housing, which has fallen by 12.8 percent since 2001 because of fewer subsidies for federal housing. The U.N. Human Rights Committee even condemned the trend as “cruel, inhuman, [and] degrading” in a recent report on the United States.
What’s behind these cruel laws? USA Today suggested that the trend toward criminalization was a result of “compassion fatigue,” a gradual receding of empathy for the poor. But there’s a more practical reason for it: As recession- and austerity-battered cities look for ways to revive their economies, they’re offering huge tax incentives for companies to build entertainment complexes, hotels and retail chains in their downtown districts in the hopes that the relocation will spur a renaissance. Statutes criminalizing homelessness have been outfitted specifically to clear out these areas. The New Yorker called this process “Manhattanization,” defined as “turning a city into a playground for the wealthiest inhabitants, even as [the city] forgets about the poorest.”
An interesting item found further down in the article was this rather telling fact:
Utah began giving away apartments to homeless individuals after realizing how much money could be saved. Policymakers realized that, on average, it costs about $16,670 a year to jail a person and $11,000 a year to set him or her up with an apartment and social work. Since a program called Housing First was launched in 2006, homelessness in Utah has decreased 78 percent, despite a recession-fueled plunge in median income. The state estimates that all Utahans will be housed by next year. (Quote source here.)
Imagine if the other 49 states in America would only follow their example. . . .
As a Christian, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what the Bible and Jesus have to say about caring for the poor among us. GotQuestions.org makes the following statement about what our commitment to the poor should be:
There is no doubt that poverty’s reach is both widespread and devastating today. God’s people cannot be indifferent toward those in need, because His expectations for us in regard to taking care of His poor are woven throughout the entirety of Scripture. For example, look at the Lord’s words about the goodness of King Josiah in Jeremiah 22:16: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me, declares the LORD?” And Moses instructed his people how to treat the poor and needy: “Give generously to [them] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10). This sentiment is perfectly captured in Proverbs 14:31: “Whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
Conversely, there is another part to this verse: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker.” Proverbs is, in fact, filled with Scripture clearly showing that God loves the poor and is offended when His children neglect them (Proverbs 11:4; 17:5; 19:17; 22:2, 9, 16, 22–23; 28:8; 29:7; 31:8–9). The consequences for ignoring the plight of the poor are also made clear in Proverbs: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). And note the strong language in Proverbs 28:27: “He who closes his eyes to [the poor] receives many curses.” Among the many sins of Sodom described in Genesis 19, her people were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
The New Testament is equally clear as to how we are to take care of the poor. One verse that nicely summarizes our expected charity is found in the first Epistle of John: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with action and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18). Equally important is Matthew 25:31–46. Now, this judgment precedes Christ’s millennial reign and is often referred to as the “judgment of nations,” in which those assembled before Christ will be divided into two groups—the sheep on His right side and the goats on His left. Those on the left will be sent to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41), whereas those on the right will receive their eternal inheritance (v.34). Noteworthy, however, is the language Christ uses in addressing these separated groups. The sheep are basically commended for taking care of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the vulnerable. The goats, on the other hand, are chastised for their lack of concern and action toward them. When the righteous ask Him when they did these things, Christ responds by saying, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Now, we are not to misconstrue this as meaning the good works of the sheep factored into their gaining salvation; rather, these good works were the “fruit” or evidence of their having been saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8–10), further evidencing that a commitment to Christ will indeed be accompanied by undeniable evidence of a transformed life. Remember, we were created to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do, and the “good works” Christ speaks of in Matthew 25 included taking care of the poor and suffering.
Now, with all of these scriptural truths in mind, we are to obey them and act on them, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). As James stated, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). Similarly, John said, “The man who says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands is a liar and the truth is not in him. . . . Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:4, 6). And the words of Christ Himself: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).
Jesus commanded us to love one another (John 13:34–35). And what better way to demonstrate the love and kindness and compassion of Jesus Christ than by reaching out to the “least of these” among us? (Quote source here.)
So let’s go back to the question at hand . . . Can One Person Change the World?
The answer is YES . . .
With compassion and kindness . . .
One person at a time . . . .
YouTube Video: “Give Me Your Eyes” by Brandon Heath: