The Problem With `The Homeless Problem'
ROAMING THE REAL WORLD
"HOMELESS" IS an adjective, not a noun. Insistence on this point is not merely a case of the galloping semantics, because the way people use this ugly euphemism reveals some ugly attitudes. We read that a shelter has beds for "20 homeless." At least "three homeless" died in Cambridge this winter. Bureaucrats discuss "the homeless problem" and patiently explain why it is somebody else's.
The words describe a problem, not a group of people. "The homeless" suggests a foul and foreign strain of bacteria that has gratuitously invaded the nation's cities. It doesn't have a face or a voice. It's just a problem, which we know won't go away, so why try to solve it?
"Homeless" is never used in the singular. Nobody says, I passed a homeless yesterday with the wind chill at 12 below. Its empty palm was bright red with cold and it kept saying, `knyasparanychange? Knyasparanychange?'"
The term is misleading because people who depend on grimy mattresses and self-righteous church ladies' handouts do not fit into any category smaller than that of the supremely unlucky. Especially in recent years, the people who turn up at shelters and free meals are not all unwashed bums. An increasing number are women, many have spouses or families, most strive to keep up appearances.
Each is the victim of a specific eviction by a condominium developer, a deinstitutionalization program, a factory layoff, or even an anachronistically starry-eyed journey to America. Some have lost a screw somewhere. All have lost their peace of mind.
There is no physical privacy on the street, so many seem to compensate for a life spent in public places by remaining secretive about their pasts. But sometimes they tell their stories.
A HAITIAN mother and three children spent some time in a shelter but now have found an apartment with a volunteer's help. The mother speaks less English than her daughters, although they arrived in the Land of Opportunity a year ago. Apartments are always hard to find and expensive to keep; the average single-bedroom apartment in Cambridge rents for $550 per month.
One man was an officer in a college chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. He says the movement died when the war ended. Perhaps a part of him died too.
Another man, tall and neatly dressed, said he lost a large check and could not afford to stay in his apartment. The story may be true, and it may not be. In either case, it protected his dignity. He was working daily through a casual labor agency, saving money to return to the mainstream of society. This is more difficult than it sounds on improper food and scant sleep. He scorned the "bag people" around him. No, he wasn't one of them.
A lean, pock-marked man got to talking about the food in jail. It isn't bad in Concord Penitentiary; they give you half a chicken on Sundays. But the South Shore, now--that was the worst.
A Somerville man, whose apartment fell prey to condominiums two years ago, joined a conversation after his dinner of restaurant leftover. At first he mumbled unintelligibly, until a volunteer showed genuine interest in his past. Then his voice became clearer and stronger.
A couple from the South passed through Cambridge in January. The husband had been in the armed forces, so they said they were entitled to a bed at navel bases in some cities--but not in Boston. They had stayed in run-down apartment for several weeks, and the experience had convinced them that the city is built on a solid heap of rates and cockroaches.
One burly man is a member of the Union for the Homeless, or so button proclaims on his thick woolen hat. He's from another century--a classic lumpenproletarian. He belongs on the barricades in the French of Russian Revolution. His heavy baritone grates with enthusiasm about the Union of the Homeless, whose slogan is "homeless, not helpless."
ALL OF these people submit to frisking and lice checks as they enter shelters, drink free soup in church kitchens during the day and try to carry their possessions as unobtrusively as possible to avoid the stigma of grimy, bulging plastic bags. They do not match the stereotypes; In fact, their loneliness tends to exaggerate eccentricities they might have hidden in a normal life.
Homeless people have problems, and sometimes cause them; they are not a problem. They are individuals who are not weary of being treated like identical units as they are of eating stale food. We cannot help them all out of the cycle of poverty, but at least we can give them respect.