It seems almost as easy to dismiss these people as beggars, bums and flat-out lazy people.
That is exactly what I have decided against doing — labeling or stereotyping those whose lives I can’t imagine living, and whose circumstances I don’t understand. I should not even have the right to do so.
Driving throughout the Tri-Cities area this summer, I have seen more sign bearers asking for money donations than ever before.
Families are the fastest growing homeless population at 35 percent. The trend among the people in our area with signs asking for help is that they claim to need it to support their families, specifically their children. One in four children in American currently live under the poverty line.
Even in Spring Lake, whose public school district is among the top 1 percent in the nation and in the top 10 in the state, this factor rears its ugly head in the form of these families’ supposed predicaments.
The presence of visibly needy people in the Grand Haven area has not seemed to shift our culture, or cue an equally visible response. It appears as a sore thumb; whereas, in large cities, this exhibited force of poverty can be diagnosed as a serious, threatening problem, reflected accurately by cities such as Detroit’s economic woes.
Last fall, I witnessed the Detroit Tigers battle the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. Perhaps the greatest impression I left town with that night, after a victorious game 3 in the series, was the sense that amidst the crowds of fanatics roaming and raving through the streets, perhaps the most activated were the people who live there — the struggling poor and the homeless.
Men played old brass horns and guitars; at their feet were opened instrument cases filled with shallow earnings of pennies, nickels and crumpled $1 bills. Others, many of them sick or crippled, offered empty coffee cans and pleaded baseball fans that, in their generally drunken stupor and ecstasy, tended to ignore the city’s most downtrodden inhabitants.
It is otherworldly to walk through that environment and experience such a rift in our society. The New York Yankees are currently valued at $2.3 billion, and that drives thousands of fans to empty their own wallets and watch the Tigers’ rival go down — while outside the walls, beyond the lights, people scrape quarters out of the gutters.
That image has left a difficult impression on me, and one that I have carried back to my hometown.
Grand Haven and Detroit are about as far apart demographically as two places can get. But the reality of joblessness, homelessness and the basin of poverty in America is punctuated at either end of our state with point-blank visibility.
The stereotype is “beg.” As I try to empathize, a word I find more appropriate is “strive.” These are people in desperation who and are living day to day in survival mode.
I find that the signs help, rather than hinder, my ability to see the sweeping scale of poverty in America, in spite of our community’s reluctance to treat its symptom with little more than pity.
The U.S. poverty rate is currently over 15 percent. Minorities, children and families are the most affected, but all walks of life, including seniors and veterans, are increasingly being trapped beneath this banner. Transversely, the United States is among the most affluent countries in the world.
Does the prescription entail higher wages and lower housing and health care costs? Does relief ultimately rest in federal and state programs? I don’t doubt there are solutions at that level, but it begins with acknowledging that not everyone on the street or living below a living wage deserves mockery and shame. It starts on a personal level.
If we can at least change how we view the hungry and the homeless — not just those living in the extreme, but even those nearer to us — if we reorient ourselves beyond institutions, we can fix these problems.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist