The Oil Spill Is Our Dust Bowl

02/03/2011 01:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We stopped on our tour around the poverty pocked southeastern U.S. for an event in Tampa. The café -- innocuously tucked in amid the strip malls along Busch Boulevard -- attracts local musicians, poets and political nonconformists. Far from the rural churches we'd visited, our trip discussing homelessness evidenced the commonalities between the divinely inspired and the renegade.

Arriving ahead of schedule we got to talk with the woman who opened the joint. She too was early. She walks four miles each way to work and allows herself extra time in case she saunters more one day than another. After introductions she said solemnly, "I'll listen to your talk and see if I can get any pointers, I'm probably going to homeless too pretty soon."

She then explained that she once had a professional job, a nice apartment and a car. But she had been one of the first cut by her employer when the economy tanked in 2008, "last in - first out" she explained. Now this 40ish petite woman -- her car repo-ed, making cappuccinos for about 10 bucks less an hour -- wasn't likely to keep the apartment.

Her first concern was her stuff. Many homeless folks have storage units. Once they realize they're losing their place; they scramble to stow their things for when they get back on their feet. Agencies don't know the exact number of desperate squatters who choose to live in storage with their belongings because these folks are breaking the rules and don't want to get caught.

Others store their stuff while they live at shelters. Paying to house a couch makes it that much harder to save a security deposit and corresponding rent for themselves. Often storage bills are the most important ones paid by the homeless. If they get behind, the wire cutters come out and the contents are auctioned to settle the debt.

After Tampa -- our southern most stop on the Southern (Dis)comfort Tour -- we hightailed it to Mobile, Alabama for a round table discussion with social workers, McKinney Vento Educational Liaisons, religious leaders and shelter directors.

It was standing room only in the Central Presbyterian Church meeting room. Nearly everyone there had a question or comment to make.

"I work with teen parents and pregnant teens, some as young as 12. The foster system is continually putting the mom's in separate placements from their babies as though they were siblings. How do I stop this?"

"I'm a school teacher who takes kids on field trips, the kids don't want a ride home because -- I think -- they live in a car and don't want anyone to know."

"How are moms supposed to find apartments once they qualify for section 8 without losing their jobs to go look?"

"We have about 65,000 kids in the Mobile school department and we've identified more than 3200 as homeless. That's about 5 percent but I think there are more."

While we were talking, it was storming outside as it was in most of the country. Many people voiced concern for those living without adequate shelter as powerful winds and pelting rains buffeted the brick church.

The next day's ride along the Gulf coast from Alabama to Louisiana featured billboards echoing the messages from the Florida panhandle. Massive banners attempt to assure motorists that the fish is safe to eat. But the fishing industry has yet to recover.

Many of the south's unemployed worked for a few months during the clean up. The magazine, The Nation, estimates that BP hired 6000 people from Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to scour the white beaches removing "tar that washes ashore in blobs, mats, and patties."

Now those jobs are gone too.

Driving into New Orleans past the shacks, tents and cots where people literally live on the side of the road, the image harkened me back to Steinbeck's Joad family in his classic "The Grapes of Wrath." The gulf oil spill exacerbated our 21st century "great depression" the way the dust bowl had the 1930s economic collapse.

Steinbeck's stark observation sadly stands the test of time, "It ain't that big. The whole United States ain't that big. It ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country..."