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Challenging Ourselves to Live Inside a Book

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I struggled back in January to explain the trip homeless advocate Diane Nilan and I were about to take across the U.S desert Southwest. Then I read President Obama's State of the Union speech and it came to me. We were journeying so that we might identify the poor -- just exactly the ones he spoke of in his address -- give them back their faces, dreams and desires. Mostly because while the president spoke so eloquently of caring about "them" they still seemed to be somebodies else, somewhere else, that no one we really would ever know. Diane and I knew that it wouldn't be hard to find them. The poor are pretty easy to spy if one just stops looking away.

I'm an aging media hack. I've spent decades as a journalist and broadcaster and I'm proof of that old line, "If all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail." The media loves a gimmick and I wanted a catchy little title for our trip. A huge Steinbeck fan since I first read East of Eden and while I've written as poverty's eyewitness all across the spectrum from Guatemala to hurricane-ravaged Louisiana to Palestine, I've long held that the imagery Steinbeck lent to the impoverished of the Great Depression as the model for how to tell the story of the poor. And nowhere in American literature is that done better than his epic tale, The Grapes of Wrath. January 22nd, Diane and I took off to retrace the exodus detailed in that book. And to satisfy my need for a gimmick, we called ourselves the "Babes of Wrath."

Here, let me show you a glimpse of the Joads' journey we sought to emulate, "The Western States nervous under the beginning change. Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, California. A single family moved from the land."

Steinbeck's 1939 novel spoke as prophetically then as it does narratively now to the issue of homelessness in 2013. And it's a sad thing to witness in all those states, this fact that nothing's changed -- or if it changed, it's changed right back -- "Pa borrowed money from the bank, and now the bank wants the land."

Off we drove across those states and saw not hundreds of empty homes, but thousands. Thousands that represent the more than 3 million foreclosures over the last five years and we saw the homeless that resulted from those loses across our country, as Steinbeck said, in "Not my land, but ours."

Steinbeck observed that the Okies were supposed to blame the tractors for taking their land. The people weren't supposed to resent the system that allowed the taking. In The Grapes of Wrath what the people owned -- their homes and farms -- were much less valuable than profits were to these banks. If it had been otherwise, the banks would have helped the people get their own tractors and protect their land. Steinbeck knew that if the banks had helped the farmers, "We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But the tractor does two things -- it turns the land and turns us off the land." And then Steinbeck strikes at the heart of what homelessness means in our country. Greed makes refugees as well as any war ever has, "There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both."

We made it to California -- like the Joads -- by traveling as best we could along Route 66. Luckily much of it has been preserved. And when we arrived in the golden state, I returned to skid row, where I'd been before reporting on poverty, and a homeless man unwittingly echoed Steinbeck's commentary about the land and the tractors and the American refugee that is created when people get in the way of oligarchs. This man who made his bed on concrete sidewalks told me, "There isn't a war on poverty, there's a war on poor people."

In some ways I feel like my 6,400-mile trip into Steinbeck's imagination -- revealing the very real poverty he'd conjured for his reader -- was just the world's strangest book report. Like I'd completed an assignment from a long ago high school English teacher who'd set me on a quest to find a new way to comment on literature. But hopefully, it's more than that. Hopefully, it's a chance for some of the 14 million people who have purchased a copy of the book -- and hopefully read it -- to realize that there's power in the knowledge that his sad tale is still true. Power folks can seize to change the plight of the poor.

Or perhaps we're doomed to the continued shortsightedness Steinbeck ably predicted: "If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we.'"