Tuesday, December 29, 2015

US: Nation of Powerful and Weak

Just as I produced my TV package on homelessness in the United States, I came across an article in The Washington Post about a homeless Harvard Law School graduate, arrested for sleeping outside an office building in downtown D.C.  In one of my earlier blogs I mentioned two of my friends with Harvard degrees who have difficulty finding stable employment. Are these people exceptions or part of a phenomenon that is called America?

Skid Row is a 50-block section of downtown Los Angeles, known as the "homeless capital of the United States." Several thousand people live there under tents or tarps, some temporarily, others chronically. The shanty town has been around for more than one century, and it has grown over the years. The city has tried different solutions - most recently it pledged $100 million to help Skid Row denizens - but no one believes this will make a difference.

"From what I see, it can't be solved," said a longtime Skid Row resident Walter Sanders. "Not unless they drop an atom bomb on this place and blow everybody up. That would solve it."

 Homeless woman in Los Angeles

Homelessness in Los Angeles has spread far beyond Skid Row. The number of people living in the streets has risen 12 percent in the past two years. And now some parts of the city are struggling to manage big homeless populations they've never seen before. LA is by no means the only U.S. city with this problem. New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and many others are not far behind. In fact, New York seems to have a higher rate of homelessness per total population. So many people sleep in the streets and parks that pedestrians don't even notice them any more. The image sparks in my mind the memory of elementary school lessons in which we were told that "in America, a person can be dying on the sidewalk and no one would stop to help." I can't remember if I believed the "communist propaganda" at that tender age, but it clearly left an impression. 

Reverend Andy Bales, an executive at LA's Union Rescue Mission, called homelessness "the worst man-made disaster in the United States." He told Sky News in a recent interview that people living in the street are increasingly victims of chaos and violence. And he said money is only part of the solution. "Most of all we need a change of heart about these precious people who are dying on our streets," he said.

In response to my recent TV report (see below) on U.S. homelessness, a viewer commented:

"For all the good that Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his 11 years as President, he made one fundamental mistake; he signed into the law Social Security. It was the front door to more welfare legislation that quickly turned Americans from being self sufficient and community conscious to dependent on Government and self entitled. Instead of a community looking out for each other and lending a helping hand to those in need, now people look to the government with an outstretched hand looking for a handout. And people will lie and distort truths to get government assistance, just to avoid having to work."

This is a belief shared by many Americans - that those who want to work can get a job and afford a home. So if you don't have a home, it means you don't want to work. There are currently more than 500,000 homeless people in the United States, about 65,000 fewer than in 2008, during the height of the global financial crisis.  Since then, more than 30 states reported a decline in homelessness.  But other 17 reported an increase in the past few years, in some cases significant. American cities including Portland, Denver, Seattle, and the entire state of Hawaii, are among those worst hit by the problem and have asked for emergency funds to cope with it.  

The economy has recovered in recent years, the unemployment rates have declined, and since President Obama took office, the economy reportedly has added 8.7 million jobs. So why are half a million Americans living in shelters and shanty towns? Could it be that they all prefer to live without regular meals, showers, clean clothes and something meaningful to do?

Postell at his Harvard graduation
That does not seem to be the case with Alfred Postell who recently appeared at D.C. District Court to answer charges of sleeping outside a downtown office. It turned out that Postell studied law at Harvard alongside with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold and Judge Thomas Motley, who presided over Postell's hearing at the D.C. court in June. Postell was described as a motivated and disciplined student who had a well-paid job after graduating. Until he was struck by schizophrenia and everything went downhill from there.

To be sure, very few homeless Americans have college degrees, but many of them have at least once in heir lifetime been gainfully employed, married or settled in some other way.  I knew one of them, a member of the VOA Serbian Service addicted to books and alcohol, who was persuaded to resign after his alcoholism became uncontrollable following his mother's death. 

Postell homeless in Washington D.C.
More than 50-thousand people lacking permanent shelter are war veterans, who believed serving in the military would make it easier for them to find a job afterwards. A quarter of all the homeless are children, some of them without parents.

Advocates say most people become homeless as a result of a tragic event in their life: loss of job or bread-winning spouse; onset of a mental disease, drug addiction or alcoholism; post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in the case of war veterans; and other tragedies some people find hard to cope with. But many Americans have lost homes, or are on the verge of losing them, due to the increasingly high cost of housing against shrinking income, especially in cities like Los Angeles and New York.

Does elite education provide protection from failure? Does it guarantee success? Neither, it would seem. My two friends holding Harvard degrees in architecture and archeology respectively, have
held only temporary jobs throughout their lives and Postell has been jailed for sleeping in a public space. Thousands of others, neither especially talented nor endowed are making millions: reality show stars, buffoons, peddlers of cheap goods, "celebrities". The old truth that anyone willing to work hard can make it in this country is beginning to shake. It looks more as if to make it in America you have to be clever enough to recognize opportunity, determined to pursue it, prepared to push rivals out of the way, ready to overcome obstacles, and be completely insensitive to insult, shame, rejection and setbacks. Weakness, disease, sensitivity, modesty and vulnerability are poor assets in Jungle America where fitness is essential for success if not survival.

Still, the majority of middle class Americans are doing well, or at least better than people in many other countries. And those fleeing poverty  and violence at home for the "pursuit of happiness" in America usually are better off than before. Statistics do not show any number of immigrants among the U.S. homeless.

Americans contribute more money to charitable organizations, and their free time to help the poor than any other people in the world.  Over the years I have known a number of friends to forgo holiday parties and family reunions to help serve food to the poor.  It is not clear what "change of heart" Reverend Bale is talking about. If he means that we need a complete overhaul of our goals as a society, I would agree. The culture promoting wealth, beauty and power as its core values instead of truth, knowledge, duty, honor, love and loyalty, and the society that places the rights of an individual over the rights of a community, are creating a nation of strong individuals and weak masses. Homelessness is just one symptom that no money and volunteer work will solve.


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