Globe Syndicate

for release March 30, 2001

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

The Homeless Will Always Be With You?

The stench of stale urine assaulted my nose as a group of us entered a subway car in downtown Chicago about 9:15 on an early February evening. A damp cold had frosted my ears and nose in our 8-10 block walk from the fashionable downtown Irish eatery until we found a subway stop.

I finally found a seat in the crowded car behind a youngish-looking guy, maybe 18 or 19, who was hunched over, arms wrapped tightly around himself. The subway car was a little warmer than the streets, but he was still obviously trying to keep warm. He wore a stocking cap pulled down almost totally over his face, a light blue jean jacket, and filthy baggy pants.

In the 45-minute ride to our motel, about every five minutes the guy would scratch his scalp ferociously through his stocking cap, then scratch his chest and arms, rocking back and forth before clamping his forearms again. In the subway station we had passed police officers telling another man he had to move out of the warm station. He was pleading loudly for mercy. Of course the officers were just doing their job. When our train reached the end of its line and we left the station, we noticed that a person or two remained huddled in most of the subway cars.

It is common to feel guilty but confused in these situations. How could I help the guy on the train? Any assistance I could give, my coat or $10, would not even have been a band aid in his much larger struggle, a struggle that possibly included drugs, mental illness, or a disease.

I was telling someone about this experience and she said, "Why don't we hear about the homeless anymore? You hear all the politicians talking, but we don't hear that much about the homeless." Yet if you walk any city street -- even lovely cities like Toronto or Denver -- you walk around persons lying on the street. In smaller towns like mine, they stand by the entrances to malls or shopping centers holding up signs "Will work for food." I saw a couple doing that just this past weekend. We know that some aren't really looking for work; if so, why not be standing in line at an employment office instead of out on the street corner?

One couple told me of their work with a family of five in Charlotte, NC. In this case the father was working fulltime at a job, but they had to live in a homeless shelter until they saved up at least $1,000 to pay the first month's rent, a security deposit, a deposit on utilities and so on. It is hard to save up that kind of money when money also has to go for food, medicine, and clothes. Many of the people who fall below the poverty level are working, but on a very thin margin. Any unexpected setback of illness, injury, or a layoff means the street isn't very far away.

Sure, there are some who have become accustomed to handouts and don't have motivation to work. Too many have a "victim" mentality. But here are some facts: about 20 percent of adults are employed; about 20 percent of the single adult homeless population are mentally ill; 20-30 percent are women fleeing abuse/domestic violence; overall, 25 percent of the homeless are children under the age of 18. Gambling and chemical addictions probably account for another 30-60 percent of reasons people are homeless, although people dispute the studies that came up with the higher percentages. These figures come from the U.S. National Coalition for the Homeless but statistics in Canada aren't far off. Activists work for middle ground on some of the "clean up the streets" policies in cities like Ottawa and Toronto where police spend a lot of time/money getting homeless people out of trendy tourist areas.

One telling statistic comes from the fact that clearing our cities of "urban blight" from 1973-1993 eliminated 2.2 million low rent units from the market. Our city skylines look better, until you look at down on the street.

Whether we try to avoid them, chase them off the streets, or forget about them, the image of a homeless person huddled over a steam grate or in a subway should propel us to compassion and action. Support local efforts to help the homeless at shelters, food pantries and the like. Perhaps get involved in a mentoring program that assists those with addictions, mental illness, domestic violence-which can help prevent future homelessness. What if someone took the huge abandoned discount store buildings sitting empty in almost every suburb and converted them into low-rent housing?

Jesus once said, "The poor you will always have with you" (John 12:8). Sometimes we forget to add that he said that in the context of reminding persons that they wouldn't always have him with them. The causes of homelessness are so vast and systemic that it does seem like we will always have this problem. But don't forget about it. It hasn't gone away.

What do you think? Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail:

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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.

NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 800 words; end material = 105 words

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