After seeing the powerful film “12 Years a Slave,” I found myself despising the Southerners who held fellow humans as property, to be bought, sold, favored or abused at the whims of the owner. How could otherwise decent, God-fearing people participate in this institution, clearly abhorrent to anyone with eyes to see? With slavery all around them, did it become normal, inevitable, even right? Now I’ve asked myself about a condition that in my lifetime seems to have become a new normal. Recently, I was on a Road Scholar (Elderhostel) program about the culture and history of Portland, Ore. Knowledgeable speakers introduced us to the storied past and dynamic present of the city. Our guide warned us that on our field trips we would see homeless people but said not to be afraid of them. In downtown Portland the homeless, young and old, stood around on the streets, some days in the pouring rain. Outside trendy restaurants, after our tasty and satisfying meals, they waited, asking for help. “Would you like this sandwich?” I asked one older woman.
“I’m always hungry,” she answered, as I handed her the boxed-up portion of a hearty brewpub lunch.
It’s not, of course, a situation unique to Portland. Driving I-5 into Seattle from the south, look to the embankment to your right. Make-shift camps are scattered in the woods for several miles of your car trip. In Seattle, early morning office workers and Sunday morning church-goers hurry by doorways of sleeping bodies. Those without shelter in rural areas may be hidden, but they suffer equally. Who are these people? Is this what we have come to accept? Government sponsored and charitable shelters provide beds but are overwhelmed by men and women and entire families without a place to sleep.
While the causes of this human crisis are many and complex, we cannot look away. Putting up signs, as some towns have done, warning us not to give money to “panhandlers” will not do. Those worried about misuse of cash may provide gift cards for inexpensive markets or restaurants. Others, like my sister in Eugene, can be creative. She buys big packages of dried fruit and nuts and fills zip-lock bags, which she hands out to anyone in need, including those holding signs at stop lights. No one has refused her offer. Charitable organizations working for the homeless depend on our donations of time and money.
For a book that opens mind and heart, I recommend reading, “Breakfast at Sally’s” written by Richard Lemieux. Previously a professional man, he lived in his car month after month and ate a “Sally’s,” the Salvation Army in Bremerton.
Homelessness in America today is local, regional, nationwide, and always a personal anguish that must never be considered normal.
Gloria Koll lives in Freeland.