A couple of years ago, I was slated to speak at a conference on homelessness in Las Vegas. I caught a taxi from the airport and sat in the backseat. The driver made the usual conversation -- Where are you from? What brings you to Vegas?
When I explained my journey's purpose, the driver responded, "The solution to homelessness is to just shoot all homeless persons." His tone of voice was as calm as if he was explaining how to win at craps. I wonder if this driver's hostile attitude toward homeless persons is not as rare as we think?
Last week, violence dominated the news -- not because of the death of Osama Bin Laden, or the war in Afghanistan, but because of an extraordinary number of violent incidents surrounding homeless Americans. In one week alone, the brutal reality of homelessness on America's streets was glaring.
On May 4, a 20-year-old man was arrested in Indianapolis for being a part of a gang who viciously killed Stephen McGuire, a 61-year-old homeless man who struggled for years with bipolar disorder and whose only "crime" was sleeping in an alley. On that same Wednesday in Oakland, California, a couple of 25-year-old gang members were standing trial for the 2007 execution-style murder of Odell Roberson, a homeless man caught up in a complicated gang and love triangle on the streets. Two days earlier, on May 2, a homeless man was stabbed nine times outside of a Greenville, New Jersey liquor store. The video cameras recorded this man's brutal killing. On Friday of last week, May 5, three people were charged with violently beating up an elderly homeless man thirty miles outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. A trooper told the media he thought they wanted to bash him "for the fun of it." And finally, on May 4, a circuit judge in Florida was deliberating on whether homeless men's civil rights were at risk because a website was promoting the bashing of homeless men by women in bikinis. It is clear that hostility toward homeless Americans sometimes results in death.
In the past few weeks, I sat through numerous local neighborhood meetings in Los Angeles listening to goodhearted Americans complain about homeless people. They said: "I am afraid for my children when they walk to school." "Those homeless are just drug dealers." "They are lowering the value of my home." "They intimidate the neighborhood."
These are complaints from compassionate, caring neighbors, who work hard to sustain their family's livelihood, worship with a local faith group, and donate to charity. Some of their neighborhood concerns are valid. Who really wants a person sleeping and eating outside their home or business?
But, when do complaints toward homeless persons turn into acts of violence? When do rational, heart-felt concerns for the quality of life of your neighborhood turn to the use of guns, pipes, knives, or fists against homeless people?
I do have respect for homeowners who want their neighborhood to be safe and clean. I firmly stand on their side of law and order, but not at the expense of dehumanizing homeless Americans who are struggling on the streets because of debilitating health issues, unemployment, or chronic disease. As soon as we see homeless Americans as an environmental nuisance, and not as a human tragedy, respectful concerns about homelessness can turn into hostile acts of violence.
The acts of aggression against homeless persons revealed in last week's media was an indication that there are too many Americans who have the same hostile attitude toward homelessness as that Vegas taxi driver.
The first step in ending homelessness in this country is to see the issue as a sad human tragedy filled with heartbreaking personal stories. Then, we will see the urgency of housing these hurting Americans.