Homeless and Helpless

For those of you who may not have seen a homeless camp, allow the Spirited Reasoner to paint the following picture, albeit from a distance:

You’re driving along an interstate highway and are approaching an underpass at a major interchange. Gazing up to the top of the grassy berm, you see a row of hastily erected tents. Some have a collection of shopping carts parked on the grass nearby. Trails of litter cascade down the embankment from almost every tent.

You wonder where the occupants go when they need bathroom facilities.

At first there seems to be only five or six tents. But now, as you continue to look, the row continues. You count at least a dozen. Maybe twenty. And as you pass through the underpass and gaze up the hill on the other side you discover dozens more. Then you turn and look across the lanes to the hill on the other side of the highway, only to discover a similar scene over there.

Thankfully, as you continue to drive, there appear to be no more tents. Until, that is, you approach the next interchange, at which point another community of tents—much the same as the first one—meets your eye.

These scenes can be found in major cities across the United States; often, but not always, near major highways.

Who are these folks, our neighbors, who have apparently given up on what most of us would consider to be the normal requirements of daily living: a decent roof over our heads, indoor plumbing, a job, a place to cook our meals, at least one car or even a bike for transportation? What happened to these poor folks that caused them to reach a decision to live this way (if “this way” can indeed be called “living”)?

One simple answer is that recent rises in housing prices have been astronomical and the typical monthly rent for a single bedroom apartment exceeds $1,000 in many places. If my math is correct, a minimum wage job paying $15 per hour will net the employee only around $2,000 per month after taxes, leaving only $1,000 to cover a month’s worth of food, utilities, transportation (including a car payment) and oh—I almost forgot—medical care and insurance. That’s assuming these folks can find a landlord willing to rent them a place, given their fragile economic status. And oh—one more thing—the minimum wage is not even close to $15 per hour in most states across the nation.

What’s the solution?

As the Spirited Reasoner pondered that question, he was struck by the similarity of the plight of our homeless neighbors to that of refugees fleeing wars, natural disasters, and famines all over the world. Then he was struck by the realization that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is an agency with lots of experience in this very thing—experience we would all do well to consider.  See https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/history-of-unhcr.html

Among other things, the UNHCR understands the nuts and bolts of providing coordinated assistance in the form of shelter, food, infrastructure, education, transportation, and advocacy. Since its founding in 1950, the UNHCR has helped millions of homeless refugees navigate a pathway to a happier, healthier, more secure standard of living.

One thing is certain: merely kicking these desperate people to another neighborhood will not solve the underlying problem. What they, and we, need is a national, and perhaps an international, response. Homelessness knows no state and national boundaries.

The blueprint used successfully by the UNHCR has been staring us in the face. Much of that blueprint has been developed over time with funding from the United States. Maybe it’s time we found a way to make use of that blueprint to help the refugees in our own country.