Homeless camps

(This piece also appears in Dispatch Alaska)

There seems to be a generally held belief that some of those who choose to live “homeless” are deliberately living off the grid because they don’t want the strictures of society impinging on their right to live however they want, whenever they want. Kind of an urban wilderness man idea.

I find that concept belied by a recent news story. According to newspaper and police reports, a man and woman were arguing. When they wouldn’t quiet down, another homeless man went into their tent and beat the man up. The woman left. Then others threw gasoline on the tent and burned it down. The man, who is in a hospital due to the severity of the beating, will not have a home there to return to. Problem solved.

To me, this looks a lot like rules being enforced by self-appointed sheriffs. So much for living with total freedom. Quiet down or you’re beaten into quietness. And then, in a move not unlike something we used to call “Greyhound Therapy” back in my Brooklyn ER days, the tent is unceremoniously destroyed, thereby forcing the person to look elsewhere for shelter when released from the hospital. Back in Brooklyn, we used to just give the homeless person a one-way ticket on Greyhound to wherever it was they said they remembered coming from. Same result, though. The person was gone from our neighborhood and no longer a problem.

I can’t imagine choosing homelessness as a lifestyle. Having been in an abusive marriage, I can imagine choosing it over going home to the abuser. I can see where it might be the unfortunate result of job loss, relocation because life in the Bush is too expensive or generally the kind of bad luck that we all seem to experience in life at one time or another. But when that homelessness happens in a cold climate and frequently involves children being witnesses to the brutality that goes hand in hand with life on the streets, then we cannot call ourselves a civilized society unless we come up with something to protect the helpless among us.

Mayor Sullivan is to be applauded for tackling this problem and making it a priority of his administration. We should all be cheering him on towards success. We may never be able to eliminate homelessness from our society because we will never be able to totally eliminate its causes. But we cannot do anything less than our best to impact it as much as possible.

There are always families out there – families fallen on hard times, families running from a home that holds greater horrors for them than any homeless camp. They deserve our compassion and helping hand. They deserve a chance at rebuilding their lives. Because for them, the “choice” of homelessness wasn’t really a choice at all.