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Catherine Meeks, Ph.D. Headshot

The Least of These

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A few days ago I had to visit a bank that is located in the Buckhead Community, a wealthy section of Atlanta. It always surprises me to drive on streets in this area and to see the houses that are as large as small apartment complexes with four, five or six car garages. The bank itself was quite the boutique bank with wide screen television and a small staff which seems to be all that it needs to accommodate the small number of customers that use the bank. It is one of the few banks that I have visited that welcomed my request to use their restroom.

I conducted my business there and drove across town to the midtown section of Atlanta and stopped in a McDonalds before heading to an appointment. When I went into their bathroom I found one of my sisters making use of the sink to clean up a little because she had spent the night on the streets. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was homeless, but it was clear to me as I paid attention to the large bag that she had containing all of her belongings. Actually she began complaining about the state of her hair while I was washing my hands at the sink more than likely to take my attention away from her plight. Though we did not have a conversation she made quite an impression upon me.

She was a tall and attractive white woman who appeared to be in her late 30s. I wonder what has brought her to this place in her journey. Also I wonder whether it is possible to build any type of bridges in our country that would span the distance between this woman and others like her and the folks whose houses I passed on my way to the bank? The truth of the matter is that the poor and the rich do not have to be friends, but in order for us to have a more sustainable country it is necessary for them to know that one another exist.

Ironically, a few days following these experiences I watched Bill Moyers Journal online, which featured a report on the disparities between the homeless people and the people with homes and stable economic lives in silicon valley. Some of the folks who are homeless were once employed by companies in Silicon Valley to do jobs that have now become extinct.

It is important for us as a nation to reflect upon the idea of expendable people which we seem to embrace with a great amount of comfort. It is too easy to assume that folks who are homeless or in poverty in general are in that shape simply because of their personal inability to do better. This is a very false assumption in many cases and these days it is quite clearly false since so many of the new homeless population has resulted from the past few years of economic downturns. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have incomes and homes need not allow oursleves to be too highminded about the distance between oursleves and our sisters and brothers with less good fortune because circumstances can and do change.

A society that is willing to allow large portions of its people to live worse than a large portion of its pets is in serious trouble and will find itself not able to sustain that type of structure for the long run. It is true that many people manage to keep the sight of the homeless and poor away from them, but it will only be a matter of time before the plight of the poor will become a bigger burden to everyone than it was expected to be. The growth of the population of poor folks in America and the disdain and disregard for them affects the quality of life for all of us. We are related as human beings and whether we acknowledge it or not, the quality of life for each person impacts what the collective quality of life will be.

Violence and increased efforts to suppress the poor is a very sorry strategy for addressing their plight and everyone who has any commitment to trying to be the best person possible while on this earth needs to help with seeking a better strategy. We can do much better than we are doing. We have the resources to change this situation. But it seems that as a nation we do not have the will because we are too busy pointing accusing fingers. Recently, a person who works with very wealthy high school students told me that the students were quite unsympathetic toward poor folks and said, "anybody who is poor is personally at fault and that they just need to get it together." Of course, there are some folks who may have made negative choices that contributed to their situation, but no one's choices should led them to having to sleep outside in cardboard boxes and to eat from garbage cans. We need to find a way to create more safety nets.