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TWO nights ago, for probably the 40th time this year, I was approached by a homeless person seeking alms. And, for the 40th time this year, I was assailed by guilt and doubt about what to do.
Although the homeless are not visibly numerous in Harvard Square, their presence is clearly felt. There are, for instance, the men who stay on the grating next to Holyoke Center on Holyoke Street. While their constant pleas for charity may initially cause you to give money, if you pass by them more than three times a day, six or seven days a week, feelings of charity may give way to feelings of guilt, or even worse, to no feelings at all. You may feel guilt because what you pay for college and books could get these men above the subsistence level, or because constant confrontations with the hopelessness of their situation could result in a deafness of the heart as well as the ears.
But can it ever be easy to hurry by the homeless when it's cold and dark, to avert your eyes when your own wallet is feeling the pinch of attending a high-priced university? How can we walk by, perhaps feeling guilty, but able to forget the incident a few short hours later?
CONSERVATIVES tend to blame the plight of the homeless on their lack of a work ethic. If they merely pulled themselves up by the boot-straps, some believe, the able-bodied ones could then make a decent living.
But homelessness can not be attributed to mere laziness. Several reasons suggest why no one accepted a recent offer, made by one Harvard Square restaurant owner to residents of a homeless shelter, of a job as a dishwasher for $6 per hour and the opportunity to sleep inside the restaurant. Some of the homeless are mentally ill. Some may be ashamed of the situation in which they find themselves, and would rather remain anonymous than become an actual face to be pitied.
Mere exhortations to go out and find a job are not going to eradicate the homeless problem. And as a society, we have yet to find an answer. Many social programs that are aimed at helping the poor and needy have simply failed to do so.
The biggest scam in this regard is the concept of rent control, under which many apartment buildings in Cambridge are regulated. As has happened in many other cities, many rent-controlled apartments in the Cambridge area have gone, not to those who needed them the most, but to those who could most easily afford them. Such abuses have forced many low-income families, those that would otherwise benefit from rent control, out on the streets.
Likewise, many welfare programs have not been all that productive in ameliorating the living conditions of the poor and homeless. What these people need is hope for a future, and to force them merely to survive until the next check arrives breeds a dependency that is hard to break. One promising program, which forms the crux of the newly-reformed welfare system, is that in which aid is combined with job-training. Such a plan has met with minor success in the states in which it had been introduced.
BUT while our society continues to grope for the social and legislative solutions to the problem of homelessness, each of us individually should still do our part. Yet the question remains, for those of us who are disturbed by the sight of shivering individuals sleeping on a grate or crying out in agony, what can we do when confronted by the homeless beggar?
One way to deal (or not to deal) with the begging of the homeless could be to take the tack recommended by New York Mayor Ed Koch: not to give out on streets but give tax-deductible donations to organized charities instead. It's a clean, sanitary way to wash your hands of the issue. But how are you going to tell a small child who is begging on the streets to survive that you won't give her money because you sent the United Way a check last week?
A social problem of these dimensions cries out for close, active attention. We can no longer avert our eyes, admitting that there is a problem but refusing to confront it; neither can we become so hardened to the problem that compassion and empathy no longer exist. If the latter scenario ever becomes commonplace, we will have lost the last remnants of our humanity.
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