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Food or Facebook for America's Homeless?

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Eric Sheptock is fast-becoming America's next social justice celebrity. An unemployed, recovering crack cocaine addict with an aggressive social media presence, he is likely the only homeless man in America to receive email alerts on press mentions of his name, for which this will no doubt register.

Sheptock, whose presence on Twitter and Facebook has attracted upwards of 5,500 supporters, refuses to accept any job that might interfere with his online advocacy. He has fans, after all, and they like him, they really like him.

The subject of a recent Washington Post profile, Sheptock fancies himself a portal into an otherwise silent, underserved community. Recently, he delivered an urgent call to action to his online supporters: "Demand the city of Gainesville, Florida, to feed all who are hungry."

"Socialism isn't a bad word," another Sheptock vignette reads. But for those with responsibilities beyond updating their various social networks, demanding they be fed to their fill is not an option.

The home at which I came of age, in Sylvester, Georgia, was a twenty-five-year-old mobile home found on a dirt road and nestled on leased land between a peanut field and pecan orchard. In that rural Georgia town, where the peanut-to-person ratio was somewhere near 1,000,000 to 1, you worked or you went homeless and hungry.

It was a simple but powerful truth: No one wants to sleep in a peanut field. There was no government aid infrastructure for the rural, overworked and underpaid mother and you can be certain there were no cosmopolitan blue bloods whose sleep that night would be interrupted lest they open their wallet for the disheveled haggards on the street.

Had my mother spent her days advocating for affordable housing -- presumably free, unrestricted housing at the expense of taxpayers -- and demanding universally free meals, the prospect of food security for her children would have been but a pipe dream. Instead, she did what is expected of responsible adults: She worked, as a teacher's assistant in the day and house cleaner in the evening.

At present, there are twenty-seven federal programs to assist the nation's homeless, contributing $1.2 billion to the deficit in fiscal year 2009. Narrow in scope, many of these programs duplicate the efforts of others. (Such is the nature of a large bureaucracy.)

For instance, there are at least four federal programs designed at least in part to assist those homeless persons afflicted with mental illness. Both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Urban Development have budgeted two programs a piece to work with mentally ill Americans living on the streets. Twenty states even have anti-poverty programs that spend to provide free cell phones.

Thanks to those tax dollar-subsidized programs and Americans' charity, Sheptock has a shelter-provided bed each night and access to Internet-wired computers from which he can marshal his growing army of online allies to demand free food and housing and unfettered access to cell phones and computers.

But in that same time, Sheptock, who has proven himself a capable and tenacious social justice campaigner, could have been earning a pay check, contributing to the tax fund from which he and those for whom he campaigns have benefited over the years. Perhaps the best favor he could do for his fellow homeless Americans would be contributing to that fund's solvency.

The compounding social barriers to economic security for America's poor and homeless has never been greater and the chance to rise above our forebears grows diminished with each successive generation born of poverty and injustice. The great tragedy of our American experience is not an individual's decision to waste their capacity for success -- lost, in some cases, on griping substance abuse, listlessness and even Facebook -- but our refusal to demand better of them.

Eric Sheptock has proved he has what it takes; he merely refuses to apply it. That failure is as much his as our own.

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