Homeless Need More Than 'Hello'
To the Editors of The Crimson:
Laura Smith's editorial piece ["Just Say Hello," March 20] on treating the homeless like human beings in order to preserve their dignity touches on one of the most crucial issues of our time: the homeless problem and how we who have roofs over our heads should address it. It is difficult to look someone asking for spare change in the eye as you walk past on your way to lunch in a warm dining hall. The issue that needs to be addressed, however, is not "our" reaction to "them," but the existence of homelessness at all in the country whose living standard is the highest in the world.
What needs to be done is not to bolster the courage of sheltered Harvard students so that they can look a homeless person in the eye, but to question the system that lets people fall through the cracks into an underclass from which there is very little hope of return. Housing is a right, not a luxury. Attitudes like Smith's encourage the denial of basic rights of citizens in a country that prides itself on democracy and justice.
In addition to ignoring the basic issue of why people are homeless in the first place, Smith's case in favor of "giving the gift of a smile or a polite greeting" is limited and short-sighted. The desperation that impels people to beg for money is beyond being restored by a pitying greeting form passers by. Sleeping on grates wrapped in a ragged blanket involves the loss of more dignity than is redeemable through "just saying hello." Smith overestimates the power of a greeting if she really believes that it is "priceless" to the poor that she condescends to greet.
"Treating homeless people with the basic dignity that all humans deserve" means granting basic rights of food and shelter. Our insensitivity to the homeless population does not begin and end in averting our eyes, but in allowing people to become destitute. Smith's attitude is typcial of those who not only accept homelessness, but take it for granted.
Be civil, smile, give a dime or two, say hello; by all means. But do not accept the state of homelessness as a given in the analysis of the "correct" attitude toward our homeless neighbors. That is where not only "incredible insensitivity" but injustice lies. Jennifer Mayher '93 Co-chair, Committee on the Homeless Phillips Brooks House Association