In my role as the manager of a non-profit homeless service agency based in Oakland County, Michigan, I am approached on a frequent basis by folks who express their bewilderment that a community with such a high concentration of wealth has a problem with homelessness. It is not my intention in this article to provide information on the extent or distribution of homelessness in Metro Detroit, nor do I wish to debate about what social or economic policies may have or have not contributed to the problem or might help to resolve it going forward. I would like to simply express a notion that has arisen in my mind and heart after four years of working to assist displaced individuals and families in our community.
What I am about to share is not a comfortable idea, but I believe it is the underlying cause of the homeless problem. It is not an anomaly that there are people among us that struggle to survive and meet their most basic needs while the majority of us live with historically unprecedented material wealth and comfort; it is precisely due to our addiction to and identification with our excessive way of life that we allow others around us to live with nothing. Again, it is primarily because so many of us have so much that we are willing to let some go entirely without, even when we can easily afford to provide the basics for all with little to no impact on the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.
When we see a person begging for change just to survive, we cringe and take little if any action. Our lifestyle has transformed many of us to the point that we barely recognize such a person as human. Some of us readily adopt animals into our homes and families while our brothers and sisters nearly freeze to death on the street. And yet, this homeless phenomenon, as it appears in places with high concentrations of wealth, is virtually nonexistent in some of the poorest communities in the world.
In my travels to rural indigenous villages throughout North America, to isolated communities in the mountains and jungles of Mexico that sometimes lack even running water, I struggle to explain what I do for a living. The very idea that anyone would allow another human being to go without shelter does not register. What kind of people would allow such a thing to happen? Such cruelty is truly hard to imagine. But here we are...
There are reasons to be hopeful, and while I may be saddened that there is a need for it in the first place, I am proud that the organization where I work exists. In the mid-80s, a group of churches began to organize themselves around the problem of homelessness, and more than 25 years later South Oakland Shelter (SOS) coordinates 67 partner congregations and more than 8,000 volunteers of diverse faiths working together to put an end to homelessness in southeast Michigan. Not only does this collective help mobilize the resources needed to take care of hundreds of homeless individuals and families each year, but they personally host them in their churches, temples and synagogues. They prepare their meals, break bread together with them, and provide transportation to and from their places of work and school. These volunteers invest in the future of people struggling in our community, not just helping them to survive, but to get back on their feet and start a new life.
While we may be able to provide some amount of alleviation, the private and public bodies working on the problem of homelessness will not be able to put an end to it until our community's spirit of humanity outweighs our desire to serve ourselves. The volunteers at SOS offer me hope that this can become a reality, perhaps in the not-too-distant future.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
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