Columns 2014

Death on the street

It’s hard to read the news about street people found dead in Anchorage. Anyone with the slightest bit of humanity is bound to feel bad when another human being suffers such a sad fate. Inevitably you find yourself wondering if there is simply not much more we can do for a certain segment of the homeless population. For them, the pull of addiction is greater than the pull of a warm room, a square meal or a death with dignity.

It is not mere coincidence that the majority of people found dead outside have intoxication as a contributing factor. Successfully pulling an addict away from the addiction is an almost impossible task, especially if the addict is not all that enthused about sobriety.

Unfortunately, the same is sometimes true for people with mental illnesses. Their illness often takes away their ability to make good decisions. Since our legal system has declared that they have the right to not take the medication that will stabilize their illness, and they are not required to live in any one place that can assure a roof over their heads in all seasons, there is little we can do for this chronic population either. We need to be sure that help is available when they ask for it, but beyond that we can sometimes only wait in quiet frustration.

I know that sounds harsh, and it is. Reality is often harsh. That we can’t save everyone from his or her self is one of life’s harsher realities. Unless or until genetic manipulation takes on a much more sinister aspect, no amount of money and services will ever remove addiction or mental illness from our society. They are chronic conditions that often defy all efforts of help. Even court ordered treatment or a jail sentence can only last so long. For some, the pull of the street will always be too strong to resist.

What we absolutely must not do is let our frustration with some of the homeless population blind us to others who are homeless because the economy tanked and they lost their job. Or maybe their husband/significant other is more dangerous to them and their children than life on the streets. We must not let our frustration with the seeming intractability of some of the homeless stop us from offering help to others in that population.

These are the people who, given a choice, would not be homeless. These are not the people you see standing on street corners holding signs up to traffic. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a mother with her children at one of those corners?

These are the hidden homeless. So much attention gets paid to those who are visible and seem somehow unsavory, that we forget another entire population that is homeless for a wide variety of reasons other than mental illness or substance abuse. These are the families who couch surf through the homes of relatives and friends while trying to find a way to make a living. These are the people who would work if they could, would pay rent if they had the money, would pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they had any boots.

In a society as rich as ours, we should not turn our backs on anyone in need. In a society that calls itself Christian, this should be something so obvious as to not need to be stated. But it has to be because many people reach a level of frustration and anger over what they see as a problem that sucks community resources dry while returning no visible bang for their bucks. And they are right to feel frustrated. After all, isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

As a community supposedly guided by principles espoused in all the major religions of the world, we cannot turn our backs on those less fortunate. Whether that fortune was determined by a lackluster economy, a mental condition over which they have no control or an addiction that has taken over someone’s life, we cannot in good conscience do anything but continue to offer a hand up out of the darkness.

Winter brings enough darkness to Alaska. We should do all we can to relieve it where possible.