By Shawn Simpson.

On my way to class, I head to the subway station. Sitting there by the stairwell, I see a familiar face. It’s Kevin. I say hi. I say, “How’s it going, man?” He replies, “OK… Got any change today?” And I say, with regret, “Sorry, Kevin, not today. Take care, man,” and I go on my way. I wish I had change for Kevin every day. Sometimes before I leave the apartment, I remember I might see him, and I look around for some change. Or if I have already left home, during my walk, I check my pant pockets or that one pocket in my backpack where I sometimes stash a few coins. In a very real sense, it’s the least I can do.

The first time I met Kevin, he was outside a corner store in the neighborhood. I stopped and chatted with him, and eventually we got to talking about his life. Kevin had been in the hospital more than once, been through a couple of jobs, his mother was sick. The soles of his shoes were worn out. He asked me on that first meeting if I’d buy him something to eat. We walked into the bodega together. We picked out what he needed – a roll of salami, a roll of bread, a package of cheese, some hotdogs, and a carton of milk. I wished I could do more, but what exactly might that be? I resigned myself, to the thought that the best thing for me to do, at least for now, was to be a friend.

In New York City, it’s almost impossible to go a day, even a trip to the subway, without seeing someone “down on their luck.” A woman walking the isle of the train asking for food or spare change, a man curled up on a piece of cardboard against a wall on the sidewalk at night, these are everyday scenes of despair in the city. I must admit I don’t really care for that expression “down on their luck.” It is dismissive of the real problem. Most of these people, if we’re being honest with ourselves, are victims of a system and a community without enough compassion. In America, the land of opportunity, I’ve often heard it said, if you’re “in the gutter,” it’s probably your fault, a sign of a defect of character, of not working hard enough. Most of us know that this isn’t true yet there are many who remain homeless on the streets. We walk by them. We rationalize away reasons for not helping: I vote. There are people whose job it is to take care of them. There are places they can go. In short, it’s not my problem.

When I walk by, even if I simply greet and acknowledge the person in front of me, reply in full sentences which so few seem to do, and look them in the eye, or even give a few dollars, I feel as though by doing no more, I’m turning my back on some injustice in the world, that I have just let down a member of my community. This also weighs on me because I have a family member who almost slipped into homelessness. A part of me pulls at me and tells me that what I should do is stop and offer more. Perhaps I should at least offer to take this person in for the night or ask them if there’s someone I could call for them. And then, another part of me pulls in the other direction – a voice inside me says, “What? Are you going to do that for every person you see? Come on. You couldn’t possibly afford that. Your roommates wouldn’t understand. You can’t spend all your time trying to help everyone.”

Back home in Arizona, I found myself with similar thoughts, brought about by a slightly different situation. When I was younger, my father made it a point to take me to the many Native American reservations in Arizona to see many things – the culture, the land, but also to see how the people there lived. Many of these places lacked basic amenities like running water. Some homes still had outhouses. And unemployment was common. As a child from the suburbs, despite having seen these things on TV and other media, it shocked me. I wondered why their situation was so different from ours. If it wasn’t because they wanted things to be that way, then why wasn’t anybody or the government doing anything about it? I couldn’t help recognize the oddness of it all – our city paying for new street lamps, but no one paying for new roads or services on the reservations. I knew that if we really wanted to, even just us two – my father and I – could make some sort of difference. We could lend a hand, and it wouldn’t take that much of our time or effort. And if we could help, maybe more people could as well, maybe enough of them could come forward so that things wouldn’t be this way.  But unfortunately, as we all know, such individual and collective acts are easier dreamt than made a reality. They do happen, but not as often as they should. Sometimes I wonder to myself: what is this doing to me, to all of us? If I had children and they saw this, what lessons would they be gleaning from it, from our actions, or rather, our inaction?

Jennifer Nedelsky reflects on this issue quite a bit in her book, Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy, and Law (2011).  One passage, in particular, highlights the sentiment I’ve been trying to express:

“What does it do to us to walk around a homeless person on the street once a week or once a day? How does it affect us to routinely see such vivid examples of a lack of collective care, of the failure of multiple social institutions? At some level we must confront the question of how it can happen in a rich society that people are cold and begging on city streets. When we see a lineup of homeless people seeking shelter in a church on a cold winter night it must generate at least an unconscious sense that if something goes badly wrong for someone there may be only the most limited kind of help available: shelter for one night, if there is a space. We live with a knowledge of vulnerability to disaster and of callousness, of indifference to suffering that characterizes the community we live in. Or perhaps there is a knowledge that, for some, there is no community, only an indifferent collectivity. How can this not be frightening at some level (even if we tell ourselves it could never happen to us or anyone we care about)?”

In short, the present condition seems to harm us all in some way. In particular, it stirs up or reinforces in many of us a lack of faith in our fellow citizens, a lack of trust. It appears that, at the end of the day, no one would really help us should we fall into similar circumstances. In that case, one might think, we better just make sure to look out for ourselves. Nedelsky sees all this as partly the result of legal property rights. That is, if I’m legally protected via property rights from having to give you shelter, I probably won’t. There’s much more subtlety to Nedelsky’s critique, but due to concerns of space, I’ll just say that I think there’s something to the idea. Another part of the story, not considered by Nedelsky, might also be the American emphasis on competition, on seeing the world as a zero-sum game rather than a collective project. But I’ll leave that aside for now since my intention in this article is to weigh in on a different aspect of the problem, namely the attitude toward homelessness in America.

In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano once asked reflectively, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” The real question here being, whatever happened to people being like Gary Cooper, that is, to people looking up to and trying to emulate that Gary Cooper sort of attitude toward life and others? Thinking about the problem of homelessness in America, I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to Frank Capra, in particular, the community-oriented spirit we find in films of his such as Meet John Doe (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  One thing I enjoyed about Capra’s films was the way they challenged their viewer. Capra appeared to hold onto this belief that if we would just extend our capacity for caring beyond our families and ourselves to our neighbors in the broad sense, then maybe we really could make the world a better place, a Bedford Falls and not a Pottersville.

I’m not sure exactly how to fix the problem of homelessness in America. But one thing we can do is learn from what Capra was trying, to change our attitudes toward those we see on our city’s streets and in other impoverished situations, to start seeing these people as what they are, as fellow human beings. And yet, how we can do that is also a question that isn’t easily answered. In the end, it’s going to take all of us to deeply question what does it mean to care for others. I’ll finish with a line from one of the Capra films I mentioned earlier, Meet John Doe, a story about a homeless man turned political leader. It sums up the attitude I’ve been trying to get at quite nicely. John Doe calls for a move from caring about one’s self to caring about others, from hiding behind walls to reaching past them. He even makes a subtle move that could be interpreted as an allusion to property rights – something Nedelsky might relate to.

“We can’t win the old ball game unless we have teamwork. And that’s where every John Doe comes in. It’s up to him to get together with his teammate. And your teammate, my friends, is the guy next door to ya. Your neighbor — he’s a terribly important guy, that guy next door. You’re gonna need him and he’s gonna need you, so look him up. If he’s sick, call on him. If he’s hungry, feed him. If he’s out of a job, find him one. To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barkin’ dog and a high fence around him. Now you can’t be a stranger to any guy that’s on your own team. So tear down the fence that separates you. Tear down the fence and you’ll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices. Tear down all the fences in the country and you’ll really have teamwork.”

Some Basic Facts to Consider As We Move Forward

  • According to Coalition for the Homeless, in recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. In March of this year alone, there were 60,144 homeless people, including 14,654 homeless families with 23,424 homeless children, sleeping at night in the New York City municipal shelter system. This doesn’t account for those finding sleep outside the shelter system on sidewalks and in subway cars. And there is no accurate account of exactly how many homeless there are.
  • The primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, tends to be lack of affordable housing, with eviction, doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing, domestic violence, job loss, and hazardous housing conditions often listed on surveys as the triggering factors.
  • Research also shows that, compared to homeless families, homeless single adults have much higher rates of severe health problems, serious mental illness, and addiction disorders.
  • African-American and Latino New Yorkers are also disproportionately affected by homelessness.