If you live in a big city like me, I’m sure you’ve noticed a considerable homeless population. And even if you don’t live in a big city, homelessness exists, whether you see it or not. I used to live in a small city that is rich in American history and each year there is a high volume of tourists who come to take in the sights. Shortly before moving away, I heard rumors that the local government gave homeless individuals one-way bus tickets out of town. It is not particularly ethical, but from a business standpoint, this makes sense, right? You have a high influx of tourists coming from across the country, and across the world. These tourists are guests visiting town specifically to see a piece of U.S. history. If you’re making higher level decisions concerning the impact of tourism and hospitality, you want the area to be open, inviting, engaging – and rid of any semblance of poverty or homelessness.
Offering one-way bus tickets for the homeless is not a new practice. It’s been done across the country for years. Some programs in New York, San Francisco and San Diego operate with the intent to reconnect homeless individuals with family in their hometowns. In Hawaii, officials have even been known to give one-way flights to the U.S. mainland. Plenty of these cities have received criticism for this type of practice, such as Sarasota, Florida, and most recently, Portland, Oregon. Advocates call out these types of programs as deliberate acts of marginalization and discrimination. Efforts to connect these individuals with family show little success rates. Who is held accountable? And how is success even measured, if at all?
According to a 2015 report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 11,623 people throughout the metropolitan Washington region indicated that they were homeless. It’s important to note that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as “people who reside in emergency shelter, transitional housing, domestic violence shelters, runaway youth shelters, safe havens, or places not meant for human habitation, such as streets, parks, alleys, abandoned buildings, and stairways.”
We can go even further to separate homeless individuals into two more specific categories:
- Literally Homeless persons – Typically known as “homeless” to the rest of society, “include Households without Children, Households with Adults and Children and Households with Only Children, who may be sheltered or unsheltered.”
- Formerly Homeless persons – Individuals that have “moved into permanent supportive housing, were rapidly rehoused, or moved into other permanent housing designated for homeless persons. This does not include homeless persons who are able to secure other permanent housing outside of the homeless system, including a non‐subsidized apartment or room, moving in with a relative or friend, or receiving a mainstream rental subsidy.”
Documentation of homelessness in America dates back to the 17th century, when society believed homelessness was a result of human worth. Today’s homelessness is a social issue that has grown much more complex – it is systemic. Causes include economic downturn (and growth), failed healthcare, war, natural disasters, and racial inequity, among various others. To change the reality of homelessness in America would require a major upheaval of our values as a nation, as well as groundbreaking policy and implementation at all levels – local, state, regional and federal. So change won’t come overnight. But it does start with each of us.
Recently, I was invited to join an old friend from high school for the Least of These DC (LOTDC) outreach ministry, which is organized by the Fairfax Church of Christ. Once a week, the ministry heads to the streets of DC no matter the weather, and delivers food, water, clothing, and other special requests. Tonight was my first time joining the ministry; the volunteers and I handed out food and water to people we met at McPherson Square. We engaged in conversation with those we met, with topics ranging from access to healthy food to the presidential election.
What struck me the most were those who coincidentally crossed our paths – the people who weren’t homeless, the people who were simply making their way through the square.
While it wasn’t an overall solution to a systemic issue, it was certainly eye-opening for me. I’ve worked in homeless shelters and food kitchens previously (with other volunteers who were there because they chose to be – they chose to give), but for some reason, my experience tonight learning about hunger and homelessness was different. What struck me the most were those who coincidentally crossed our paths – more specifically, the people who weren’t homeless, the people who were simply making their way through the square. I watched them as they avoided eye contact. From the corner of my eye, I realized that groups of young people (out on the town or out for a run) dodged our circle of conversation, appearing to make sure they kept enough distance. As my friend and I listened to one gentleman after he accepted a sandwich and bottle of water, one particular remark from behind me caught me off guard:
“This is why I didn’t want to walk through here… these people…”, he said loudly to his two daughters as he hurried them along. It was simply heartbreaking.
To those dear daughters: I hope that you’ve learned to see the light in others.
So what can be done to solve the homelessness crisis that our country faces?
To be honest, I don’t know the right answer. But I do know that the blame cannot be placed on mental illness, perceived lack of effort, drugs, crime, or an unstable childhood upbringing. To accept any of these as simple fact only shows a discomfort in the issue, a willingness to be indifferent, and a decision to not take action. To me, to place blame on one specific topic like those listed above does not get at the root of the issue.
What we can do is practice compassion. It starts with important and deliberate action:
- Be civically engaged. Inform your legislators and policy influencers of your concerns. Vote. Voice your opinion. Do it often.
- Lead by example. Consider a career as a legislator or policy expert. Be the voice who takes action. Represent your community.
- Treat those you meet with dignity and respect. Remember that no human life is more important than another.
- Start a personal initiative by buying items in bulk so you can hand them out to individuals you may meet. A coworker of mine collects feminine products, water bottles, gloves, and socks; she keeps them stored in her vehicle so she can distribute them whenever she comes across someone on the street who is in need. One of my siblings does something similar, and keeps “care packages” – or plastic bags filled with necessities we often take for granted – within arms reach of the driver’s seat of his car.
- Volunteer your time by giving to others. Whether it’s by helping out at a shelter or joining a ministry*, you can get creative with this! Fit it into your schedule when you’re able to and invite others to join you. Service is more fun when you do it with others!
*For those in the metro DC area: If you’re interested in joining the Least of These DC ministry, come on out! To join the email list on updates from the ministry, email firstname.lastname@example.org or come out on Thursdays at 7:00pm EST outside of the Navy Memorial/Archives metro stop. Feel free to contact me through the Contact tab above with any questions.