Ruth Ann Angus
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Pogo by Walt Kelly
We see them all the time lounging on the grass in the park, hanging around outside the Dollar store or The Subway sandwich shop, and shuffling along on the main street. It is obvious they are homeless.
We have produced any number of ways to describe them – homeless, houseless, unhoused, and these terms are better than what we used to call them – vagrant, bum, vagabond, drifter, nomad, drunkard. The Thesaurus in Microsoft Word cannot find any similar words for “unhoused or houseless” nor could it find similar words for “bum.” Synonym descriptions for “homeless” are dispossessed or displaced. It is obvious that they are displaced, however not too many people identify them as dispossessed. But dispossessed might be the correct way for us to classify these unhoused people.
Dispossessed means expelled, cast out, driven out, ejected, divested, stripped, deprived, robbed – all these descriptions in one way or another frame a picture of the thousands of homeless who are roaming our city streets and sleeping in hidden doorways or under roadside bushes.
Robbed of a future. Deprived of human rights. Ejected from the social order. Cast out from community. Nowhere to turn. These are the emotions conjured up for people who have fallen from public grace. The dispossessed no longer belong or fit into the social order.
The United Nations claims that everyone has basic human rights, and they are ours merely because we are human beings. The right to food and shelter are covered under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why then so many dispossessed people? While we can ask who is to blame, the better question is where does the responsibility lie now that we have so massive a problem? Cities and towns across the country are struggling with this question and answers are hard to come by.
Often in cases where justice is in question, we hear the word “accountability.” We want something done and if not true justice, then at least accountability. Responsibility seems impossible to discern, but isn’t it the same word, the same meaning as accountability?
Many people feel that the homeless themselves are responsible for their plight. That the situation they are in is their own fault. Maybe they made poor choices in their lives, and this is how those choices played out. Does this mean they should suffer the indignity of no shelter? Isn’t there an obligation on someone’s part to alleviate this suffering?
The ball is thrown at the government. The government passes the ball to the churches. Churches say they cannot afford to. Residents say the city should do something. The city says the county should be taking care of it. The county passes it to civic organizations and there the ball stops. While civic groups do help by offering food and resource lists for some to find assistance, the underlying cause for the continued increase in homelessness is never fully explained and no one claims it is their duty to eradicate it.
Duty means responsibility, even obligation and yes, burden. For instance, it is our duty to pay taxes, it is something you must do. Why isn’t it our duty to take care of our sisters and brothers, who for whatever reason, are without shelter?
It is ours to do. No matter whom, no matter what organization or governmental body or faith group we belong to. It is our mission as a people.
This is where the responsibility lies.
Ruth Ann Angus coordinates the Morro Bay Nonviolent Cities Project through Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service and does nonviolence education programs. See www.yeswecanpeacebuilders.org.