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Breaking down the how and why of homelessness

Charles Moore, Community Voices • Dec 22, 2019 at 6:45 AM

This summer I spent some time downtown Johnson City photographing various scenes for my own sesquicentennial celebration. Of course, what I also saw were a variety of homeless people shuffling along, their possessions on their back, or in a store-buggy, or waiting along side the Sevier Center for Munsey Methodist to open.

No one approached me, either for a handout or as an equal (obviously, the camera made a difference). But there was an unease on my part of sharing the sidewalk with a person sleeping in a corner of two buildings.

I should point out that downtown is very photogenic but be prepared to walk a lot and go either in the morning or the evening.

I don’t pretend to offer a solution for homelessness across the U.S. or in Johnson City or in Kingsport. It doesn’t take much observation (something you learn to do when you take photographs) to realize the problem is hardly Johnson City’s alone. The locals might or might not want to acknowledge the presence of the other, but, acknowledgement is a first step toward addressing the symptom before working on the problem. After that acknowledgement is made, we can then deal with the size of the problem.

Nor can I offer a solid reason why homelessness is rampant in some places and not others. I don’t imagine the homeless situation is only an economic condition. I do find I don’t like the “other” classes of Americans who write off homeless as mentally ill, or deserving what they get, or are their own worse enemy. Most of us probably have been unemployed at one time or another but most of us were never on the streets, never without support, never faced worrying whether tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, will bring a meal and a cot and a roof.

To my way of thinking the very first thing is to not think of homeless as a uniform block. I doubt the homeless “community” is any more uniform than any other community. Some wag on the radio the other day suggested that not all billionaires like all other billionaires. It would follow that a homeless person can be independent as much as any of us are, or are not, depending on how we tie ourselves to our presently comfortable artificial constraints. People, as I understand it, are homeless for a variety of reasons and that same variety hampers the efforts to either get them off the street (like some kind of refuse) or into a slightly more productive life (like the rest of us?). But like many solutions to such dilemmas in this modern world, NIMBY rules. This segregation is most likely the hardest to overcome.

It would help to make a distinction between homeless (as in sleeping on the streets or in the shelters) or housing deficient (rent controlled housing) or mentally ill and in need of professional, long-term care. Wealth determines a pecking order, in housing, in medical care, in hunger. We know this. We either suffer or benefit from this pecking order. I don’t propose the city fix a wealth problem but it must be understood that a variety of deficiencies, or insufficiencies, or inadequacies, such as lacking wealth or lacking family support, or lacking order in our lives, can catch up to us without warning and leave us homeless.

How we solve this dilemma of homeless will take an effort most of us are probably not prepared to do. But it will take all of us to begin to tackle just the symptom before addressing the underlying cause. Sadly, I suppose there will always be someone at the top, with a nice home in a gated community on a lake, and someone at the bottom, who will be homeless.

I can just imagine when the city floated a plan to disperse the residents of the Sevier Center the rest of the town went ballistic combining “Sevier” with “homeless” and “not in my neighborhood.” Does that mean the problem of homeless people is confined to downtown and is therefore the downtown’s problem? From personal experience, I would say this symptom — being homeless — could surface anywhere.

We never know if these kinds of situations will arise in our futures. It doesn’t take much to ruin all the plans and the preparation for a decent life. I am reminded when my business law professor from decades ago, who earned his college money doing collections, warned us that all of us would be about one paycheck away from being on the streets. At the time I was undergoing my second round of unemployment, so I was intimately aware that these things could sneak up on you from behind. I thought he was probably right then and I would say he would be right to this day.

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