Why Did the Evolution of Social Justice Leave the Homeless Behind?
This being the first article I have submitted to Homeless in Savannah, I decided to forgo any of the gritty details of that faction of society we call “the homeless”. Instead, I’d like to express a little of what is in my heart, an exploration that is still ongoing. Like many, I long for justice for everyone, including those who have been denied for so long. Although it lies at the end of a path I feel is clearly visible, I can take little more than baby steps along that path. That’s fine though because I’m more fortunate than many in that I can at least see the path and I don’t fear it. So here you’ll read about only a small step in a journey I’m determined to take. And, as with most worthwhile endeavors, the first step is nothing tangible but a glimmer somewhere in my own spirit.
I was born in 1951 and raised in Tampa, Florida in the days when the city was as much rural as it was urban and in an age when bigotry, sexism and racism was widely accepted; when tolerance and compassion were deemed impractical; when “homelessness” was not a part of the American vocabulary. There was certainly a large population in this country that had no home, no job and no way to sustain themselves but to beg the mercy of others. Back then, though, they were called “hobos” or “tramps” and, in the public consciousness, little more than sad but comic characters romanticized by the likes of Red Skelton and Emmitt Kelly. The average American knew nothing more about the homeless than those whimsical images and seldom spoke of them, except perhaps in whispers.
In the 60s, as I grew into adulthood, I watched, day by day, great and selfless people, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gloria Steinem and Abbie Hoffman, wage very painful, sometimes bloody and deadly, wars against the “white picket fence” society that was spawned after the end of WWII. A society that did not necessarily need to be fair and just as long as it could delude itself into believing it was so; that could so easily hide injustice from itself. I took my first lessons in justice and compassion then, as I watched minority families dare to step out of the economic and geographical ghettos in which they had for so long been imprisoned; as I watched women begin to open the gates in those white picket fences, step into the world and declare themselves as important and deserving as anyone.
Yet the homeless remained unseen.
I stood at a roadside and waved to President Kennedy as his motorcade passed by on its way from MacDill A.F.B. to downtown Tampa. I remember thinking then what a kindly, handsome man he appeared to be as he sat high on the back seat of that open Cadillac. I was shocked when I heard, four days later, that the cesspool of bigotry and hatred I was growing up in had shot that good man dead in Dallas. I cried bitter and angry tears when that same hatred killed Dr. King. I had realized by then that Dr. King was not here in this world to light a spark of freedom for just African-Americans, not even for minorities in general. He was pointing to the road to freedom for ALL OF US. In his wisdom, Dr. King knew that when a society throws shackles on anyone, the whole of the society becomes shackled and when you turn a light on any part of a society, that light shines on the whole. And when Dr. King was assassinated, the light he carried was dimmed but not extinguished. I cried because Dr. King was not afraid to show us all what was in his heart. I cried because he left so much undone. I cried because I was afraid the torch he passed to us may prove to be too much of a burden.
I saw all this. I watched America’s struggle for social justice, a struggle that is far from complete but one I believe we are now committed to. I saw all this yet I did not see it all.
Because the homeless remained hidden.
That corner of our society seems to have been left out of the struggle. That part of our society remained as desperate and hopeless as always and still few seem to care or even acknowledge their existence. And today, the homeless remain as hidden and unheard as ever. And I ask myself why.
Why have these last five decades of struggle and hope not touched those who are as deserving as any? Why has the compassion that has grown over those five decades stopped short when it comes to the homeless? I can think of one answer worth consideration; fear.
Homelessness has no boundaries. Homelessness transcends race, religion, sex and economic class. Anyone, under the right circumstances, can find themselves face to face with the prospect of homelessness. Everyone who ponders the plight of the homeless can say to themselves, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” and that is frightening. Like cancer, or AIDS, or mental illness, homelessness is best left in the shadows, as though any mention of it might summon up some horrible demon that is likely to turn on anyone.
Fifty years ago, the easy and often exercised solution to the racial problems this country faced was to either chase the minorities out of the communities we wanted to “protect” or lock them away somewhere out of sight, either in ghettos we designated for them or in prisons. These easy solutions are now considered, for the most part, unjust and inhuman. Yet that is precisely what we are doing with the homeless. Though lately there are numerous organizations who are earnestly trying to provide the homeless population compassionate avenues to a healthy integration into mainstream society, I have found that the prevailing attitude of most is still to turn to civil authority to remove the homeless from sight. People who have no problem with a minority family moving into the house next door become up in arms when someone who appears homeless simply walks down their street. The homeless tend to hide from mainstream society, not because they wish to but because society still demands it. Visibility to the homeless most often means harassment, criticism, sometimes imprisonment; injustices that would be considered intolerable if applied to any other faction of society.
America has learned that before any progress can be made in solving its deepest troubles, they first have to be brought to light and demystified. This has happened over the years for sexual and racial inequality but the stigma that is so thoroughly anchored to the homeless has changed very little, if any, over the decades. This must change. The light of humanity that Dr. King and Ms. Steinem handed to us needs to be refocused to include our responsibility to be guardians of all of society, including the homeless.
So, in closing, I ask of anyone reading this to do one simple thing. In this hectic era of sound bites and pop-ups, “click to donate” and having the entire world’s knowledge at our fingertips, I ask you to stop for a moment. Step away from the trees for a moment and take a glimpse at the forest. Exercise your soul. Don’t just say, “There but for the grace of God…” but open yourself to learn something about what homelessness truly is. Let your heart ask what is right and fair.
I ask you to set aside any pre-conceived notions you may have about the homeless in our society and try to see them in a new light. They deserve this. If I am given the opportunity to submit additional articles to Homeless in Savannah, my hope is to reveal some real truths and dispel some of the myths about the homeless. I do not profess to be an expert on homelessness but I have been there; I have been homeless and there are some truths and fears that still lie in my gut. And I have a heart that refuses to grow cold.
Bio: Glen Eich
After a stint in the Air Force, Glen Eich spent 3 years hitch-hiking around the U.S. before settling down to pursue his artistic aspiration to become an architectural designer. Although Mr. Eich made architecture and engineering his lifelong endeavor, it did no result in the successful career one might guess. A lifelong affliction of clinical depression and bipolarism, conditions left untreated until the later years of his life, resulted in sporadic and short periods of employment and numerous periods of unemployment, often resulting in homelessness. Mr. Eich lived a life that fluctuated wildly between affluence and destitution. Now, in his retirement, he strives to impart some of the lessons he learned onto others.