We see them every day, laying on a park bench, or sleeping under the pylons of a bridge. In August, an article in the Dayton Daily News reported the number of homeless in Montgomery County at 857. As jobs remain scarce and social service resources continue to be strained, that number is bound to rise well before it recedes.
Occasionally, some well-intentioned person gets it in their head to go out and raise awareness for those less fortunate by spending a night in the cold. In my opinion, the recent story of a part-time minister and business owner who spent a month living in his van to experience homelessness is the ultimate insult.
Having access to a shower twice a week, regular food he had stashed in the van and routine visits with his family, the minister knew this ordeal was temporary and sleeping in a heated van in no way mirrored blistering-cold conditions on the street. However well-meaning, there is simply no way someone with a light at the end of the tunnel can possibly fathom what the experience of homelessness is really like.
The absence of a permanent residence and a lack of regular meals are only two problems associated with homelessness. According to statistics released by “Homeless Solutions, The 10 Year Plan, Montgomery County, Ohio,” 58-percent of the area’s homeless experience violence during their time on the street.
Acts of violence can stem from domestic issues, drug abuse, turf disputes and even fights that break out over who gets to sleep in a particular corner. An individual who comes to temporarily experience the plight of the homeless has no experience with the brutally physical fight for survival that often takes place on the streets.
A significant number of homeless are disabled in some way. The U.S. Department of Mayors reports that 16-percent of single, adults who are homeless suffer from severe and persistent mental illness. Data from the National Coalition for the Homeless indicates that disabled adults make up 38-percent of the shelter population of the United States .
Play-acting as if you have experienced the pain and loss of these people is insulting. I find it particularly offensive when it comes across to others as little more than a publicity stunt either to boost the ego of the clergyman, or advertise for a church.
If you really want to help these people, don’t go sleep in a van with heaters, a credit card and a month’s supply of Ramen. Instead, work as a volunteer at a food pantry, or donate clothing, food or time to an organization that provides social services for the homeless. Actions like these will do far more good than treating homelessness as if it is some kind of social experiment.
As America ages, the number of homeless seniors will increase, particularly as poverty among the elderly continues to rise. Every day, politicians, social workers and philanthropists all over the country talk about various ways to help the homeless population. Unfortunately, there just isn’t a simple solution.
It is only my opinion, but I believe that our homeless want neither pity nor awareness. I may be totally off the mark, but I prefer to think that those who are struggling would prefer to retain their dignity and get a chance to turn things around honestly.
People who take advantage of the available services will have a fighting chance to do just that. For the rest, there is little to be done. An individual has to have the desire to change their situation before anyone can help them.
For all of the studies and analysis, the awareness programs and the social services, everything really comes down to the individual. You can’t force people to pay attention to a problem that has existed since man created civilization. No matter how socialized, every society has its homeless population and, as different as they may be, they remain remarkably similar.
Award-nominated columnist Gery L. Deer is a freelance writer based in Jamestown . More at www.gerydeer.com.