Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Ignoring the Homeless is Un-American

Jul 26, 2012

Ignoring the Homeless is Un-American


Homeless man in The Bowery, Manhattan. The advertisement is for luxury condos.

The other day I read that homelessness in my small, typical, middle American city has jumped 39 percent in just one year. Still reeling from the shock, I wondered, “What would Thomas Jefferson say?” Jefferson spent long hours worrying whether the fledgling United States -- the first country based on the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- would survive. He wasn’t sure that ordinary people would be willing to contribute their hard work and tax dollars to support the common good and needs of the nation.

Jefferson’s solution was that everyone should have a home of their own. Homeowners would be the most responsible, civic-minded citizens. They would realize that their own place would prosper best if the whole community prospered.

That’s a fundamental pillar of the myth of Jeffersonian democracy,which has been such a central thread in American life. In the nineteenth century the federal government gave away homesteads to make sure that the frontier would be settled by responsible homeowners committed to building strong communities. We get tax deductions for mortgages because the government still wants to promote home ownership.

Of course plenty of us can’t afford to buy homes. When government provides subsidies for renters, the principle is the same: People can fulfill their personal potential, and thus contribute most to the community, if they have a place of their own.

That’s not to say the homeless don’t contribute. Over 40 percent of homeless adults have jobs, many of them full-time. Homeless people take care of their communities, whether in shelters or on the streets. But so much human potential is wasted when people must spend a good part of each day figuring out how they’ll get through the night -- and get through it safely, if they are lucky.

In the current recession, as homelessness skyrockets, the resources of government to help the homeless wane. Housing subsidies are much harder to come by, though home owners still get generous tax deductions on their mortgage interest. Our society divides further between haves and have-nots -- precisely the danger Jefferson foresaw if everyone did not have a place of their own to live.

There’s another great American myth: “We shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Ronald Reagan loved that line. But he left out the rest of what John Winthrop told the first Puritans headed for America: “We must be knit together in this work as one man. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities.” That doesn’t sound like the kind of society that would let homelessness rise 39 percent in a single year.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave new life to Winthrop’s vision when he proclaimed: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

King did not say we “should” be tied together. He was not telling us how we should live our lives. He was telling us what the world is like. We are in fact tied together, the richest and the poorest, those who live in mansions and those who live on the streets. Whatever happens to the homeless affects all of us, even if it’s so indirect that the homeless remain largely invisible to most of us.

Jefferson understood what John Winthrop and Martin Luther King were talking about. He understood that democracy means we are, in fact, all tied together in the single garment of our community’s destiny. We must all contribute. Most of the homeless already contribute what they can. But they could give so much more if they had the stability that a home provides.

Sadly, many homeless can’t contribute a lot because of mental and physical disabilities that go untreated. Here, too, our society has failed to recognize that we’re all in this together, that treating those who need help is a crucial way to help all of us live better lives.

Responding to the growing epidemic of homelessness is not simply an act of charity. It’s an essential way to live out our most traditional myths of what it means to be a good American. To ignore the homeless, and the skyrocketing rate of homelessness, is more than a moral lapse. It’s positively un-American.

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