At just about sunrise in the sleepy little town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, mommies and daddies, babies and school kids, veterans and old folks start walking the streets looking for a place to go. Many will drag their suitcases through town and head for Carlisle CARES resource center. The scene looks a little like visitors coming to town, walking to their destinations. But there is no train or bus station, these tragic folks are displaced vagabonds, exiles in their own hometown.
Each day - while it's still dark - about 60 people are rousted from their makeshift beds on the floors of local churches. They fold up their blankets, roll up their two-inch foam mats, shoulder their belongings and vacate donated sleeping spaces.
Carlisle is as Americana as any city in the United States. Five founders who signed the Declaration of Independence lived in Carlisle. General Washington didn't just sleep there; he mustered troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion and worshiped regularly at the Presbyterian Church in the town square.
Carlisle came under fire during the Civil War. Rebel troops camped on the campus of Dickinson College as Confederate General Richard Ewell occupied the Carlisle Barracks: the northernmost military installation taken by the south during the War Between the States. The barracks - now known as the Army War College, a graduate school that educates military commanders from around the globe - at one time housed the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. That Native American concentration camp - disguised as a leaning institution - is best remembered for Jim Thorpe, the Sac and Fox native who won the U.S. two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania is a pretty special place today too. Just 18,727 people live there. The median price of a dwelling is $137,500. Carlisle has a Dunkin Donuts, a McDonalds or two, a Walmart, many other power retailers and fast food joints and - as the crossroads of the east coast trucking industry - lots and lots of warehouses. Not surprisingly, many of the low wage earners who work in those establishments aren't living in the hundred-plus thousand dollar homes. They're sleeping on the floor of churches or in one of Carlisle's other two homeless facilities. Still, all these people working for low wages and shuffling along with their kids and the elderly in Cumberland County have it better off than most of the folks experiencing homelessness across the country. Most communities the size of Carlisle don't have any shelter at all.
Perhaps it's because of Carlisle's constant presence at the forefront of American history that the people of that town dedicate so many resources to the reality faced by their low-income neighbors. After J.E.B. Stuart's blasted a few canon balls into your county court house, it's hard to deny the reality of war. And there is a war in America. It's the war on the poor.
See, little Carlisle's remarkable because it acknowledges the homeless. Without counting the people living in dingy hotels - regularly displaced during one of the town's many infamous car shows - or those doubled up on the floors and couches in their neighbors homes, Carlisle charities shelter roughly 180 persons a night.
That means that little Carlisle bears the responsibility for 180 people - a third of whom sleep on the floors of churches - 180 out of 18 thousand. Sure, they get a little help from the feds, very little, and even less from the state: the bulk of the burden for caring for people in the town rests on the shoulders of the good people in the area: An area where one of every one hundred persons is homeless.
Why are the people of Carlisle better off than the rest of the country? They're better off because using Carlisle's numbers and applying them nationally - numbers that are more accurate than nearly every other community that can't or won't support it's neighbors in need - simple math indicates that the number of homeless people in America is about 3.5 million. Sadly for everyone from the infants to the elderly experiencing homelessness, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) denies the existence of roughly 3 million of them.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a community that was there for the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and educator to the commanders of our all our modern conflicts, has dedicated its resources to fighting the war on the poor. But the evidence this loving community has gathered on the battlefield is ignored.
The country should examine Carlisle's experience; study the whole problem - not the redacted version reported by HUD - demand more accurate reporting of the problem and exponential funding increases to address the need. If experience proves anything, the impact made by one small town, courageously battling successive threats to the American Dream, cannot be denied. Carlisle, Pennsylvania is proof that resources applied to a national threat can stave off disaster.
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