North America's eastern part continued to quiver last week, as it came to grips with one of history's coldest waves. The inclement weather had driven people indoors. This had been a record breaking freeze, with temperatures dipping to -90F or (-67C) in Washington state. A 'cyclone bomb' had been dumping snow as far south as Florida. Severe weather has left its trail of death and destruction in its path. Winter season in the US is characterized by persistent cold winds, absence of foliage, snow falls, blizzards, shorter and cloudy days and very low temperatures.
This evening, the wind-chill cut sharply on through our faces, as we walked out in the open. It also opened our eyes to new realities. With the endless bounties that Mother Nature has gifted, it also exposed us to our harshest winters. In these acrid, piercing nights, and for reasons of sanity, we choose to remain inside our shelters...our homes, which provide us warmth and comfort.
However, in the dark and deserted streets of Chicago's downtown, you can hear the whistle of the howling wind. In the grey morning twilight that silently creeps up to the rising city skyscrapers one may also see the silhouettes of men, women and children, clad in torn, moth-bitten, overalls walking their way with a dog, under the highway bridge. These are the shadows of the homeless, who thrive in one of the richest nations on our planet.
Homeless itinerants occupy their chosen, sacred spaces in all cities of the US. They are the displaced derelicts, who blend well with their surroundings. We can't see them because we do not want to see them. This is a paradox of our times. Unbelievable as it may seem, they number more than half a million drifting souls. A can of beer in one hand, gives them an identity. And their wild, flowing beard gives them a human face.
They are seemingly everywhere, yet they are invisible. Although an integral part of our landscape, they are deemed to be of no greater significance than the wall they lean on. These vagrants constitute our society's unwelcome outcasts, the unwashed, disheveled and forgotten citizens of United States; where all men are created equal but some are less than equals, condemned to live in shadows. No race or creed is exempt from this emptiness. Without prejudice, vagrancy draws in people from all walks of life and sections of our society.
Consonant with our existing weather chill, the ice cold reality is that 1% of the population or nearly 4.0 million people of the US are devoid of a luxury called home. Fastest growing segment are the families living together, who make up for a quarter of the homeless community.
They are less than productive in the sense that nearly a quarter of this entire community has serious mental illnesses and are found to be struggling with substance abuse. Nearly half of them manage somehow, with their worst and chronic health issues. Two third of this community is faced with every day challenges of finding food, edibles or nourishments. Something that is essential and needed for day to day, basic survival.
At every major intersection in downtown Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle or Chicago, one is likely to come across the homeless, who are constantly on the move. You see them holding placards, asking for material or monetary help. Homelessness is also the state of helplessness. Or, emptiness. In the US, it is a phenomenon ... social stigma, which has stared at us mockingly, for many years.
All this did not emerge to strike us one winter night. Persisting gaps in affordable housing, rampant rise in divorces, lawful evictions, mismanaged domestic spending, post stress trauma and related disorders, fire, earthquakes and hurricanes or floods, disabilities of people combined with substance abuse, have all contributed favorably to give this a demonic posture. For once, it has certainly challenged the capacities of our state machinery.
Two nights ago, a homeless man died in the streets of Miami. His mortal remains were discovered by pedestrians, under a heap of old newspapers and cardboard boxes. Perhaps, he met his end due to exposure or malnutrition, or AIDS or any number of causes. That night, the wind-chill temperature had dropped well below 35F. His worldly possessions were few....to include only a hand cart, loaded with a dirty blanket and some duct tape. A handwritten card found at the site, stated 'Homeless...Need food or change'.
Why do we avoid taking any notice of the homeless, who live in the shadows? I recall John F. Kennedy's inaugural address to the nation in 1961. His famous words still reverberate, 'Fellow Americans! Ask not what this country can do for you, ask what you can do for the country'. Half a century later, questions that we ask today: 'Is the United States also serving the citizens of our nation, who continue to live in a state of dire need? Are the state and Federal institutions delivering all that is needed, without prejudice to restraint or omission?'
Paradoxically, our welfare system has continued to rely on the generosity of the people of United States, who are initially 'shocked' before responding in kind, to the appalling stories of the unwanted and vagrant minority...the homeless of this country. To redress the feeling of guilt and discomfort, conscientious people are doing something tangible for these forgotten, un-housed citizens.
Homelessness has had very significant and adverse effects indeed upon these marginalized people of the shadows. Their adversities ranged from health issues to personal entrapments. It is widely believed that many of these wanderlust individuals, who had failed in their lives, were unable to cope up with their difficulties. Inability to rise up to the occasion, alienated them from the rest of the world. All this has left these unfortunate people scarred, from the grave trauma of living in the streets for years.
For these committed wanderers, health is an early casualty. Due to missing attention of doctors, medical practitioners and/or family members in life, the health issues of the affected persons aggravated; and further enhanced to gigantic proportions. They suffer from diseases of Cardio-Respiratory nature, Tuberculosis, Skin Disease, Nutritional deficiency, HIV/AIDS; all of which singly or jointly lead them to their early mortality and graves. This is the moment when dependency seeps inside people who live in the streets of US cities and are faced with addiction to drugs, or suffer from lack of immunity or mental illnesses. They find themselves easy prey for physical and sexual assaults upon them.
A second noteworthy casualty is the loss of self esteem. When the roof over the head is suddenly lifted away, one comes to terms with the most painful realities. There is always, convulsion and discomfort, coupled with feelings of remorse in one's thought of not being able to acquire or maintain a roof over the head. A roof has always symbolized 'shelter'. The homeless continue to suffer from loss of their ability and will, to care for themselves. This leads to depression and enhanced substance abuse, and further into concurrent violence. This is the unfortunate vicious cycle and a pathway that always leads to crime, followed by punishment. Worst behavioral problems are known to have been exhibited in this phase of life of the homeless persons.
Modern societies in the developed world have shared this enigma. It has largely affected the people, mostly related to third world countries. Unfortunately, the corrupt rulers and inept politicians have been unable to grant any recognition to this issue, regardless of its impact on limited national resources. The phenomenon is identified to have directly resulted from poverty caused due to lack of education.
The homeless squatters of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh live a quality of life identical to the traveling nomads, barely living hand to mouth, sometimes working as seasonal, ill paid workers. Our societies treat them equally with contempt and let them to resign to their own fate.
Conscientious citizens wish to avoid seeing fellow countrymen drawn into the vicious lifestyle of marginalization. These nomads have continued to be despised members of their own homeless colonies. They visibly exist in of the various, civilized city landscapes of this country. A major heartbreaking human issue, has been ignored and allowed to grow out of proportions. Collectively, we must think of extraordinary ways of ending this mayhem that had been created. There is this growing realization, that it is nothing more or less than an extreme form of poverty. Inadequacy and indigence create human vulnerabilities of every kind.
All of us need to act together responsibly, to bring an end to the phenomena of homelessness ....through preventive steps, taken in the right direction. We need to revamp our current policies, to make adjustments in existing laws governing the process of eviction, job termination, provision of healthcare, domestic violence or substance addiction.
Our collective decision shall determine the outcome.....whether we will be sending more individuals and families to join others in wanderlust, into the narrow and crowded downtown streets. Or, perhaps we shall be doing something better to redirect the habitual wanderers from their margins, into the new comfort of their homes, to enable them continue to maintain grace and self respect. Our choices will determine the fate of these faceless shadows in our downtown.
The writer is based in USA
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