Thursday, July 18, 2024


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“Build the fence around Mike Pence”…rang the chant from the crowd that had marched down to Morgan Square  in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to hammer home support for   homeless refugees and immigrants to the United States.

Pausing to regroup, they looped around and began their march back to Cleveland Park  chanting a combination of love for all, this is what community looks like, human rights, love your brother.

Cars tooted in support while a biker or two flipped them a couple of middle fingers.

As they marched past the parking garage, a man reached across a black trash bag and picked up a two liter bottle of Orange Crush soda. He took a swig and put the bottle down with a distinct brokenness.

…this is what community looks like…the chant rang out…

He looked at the chanting crowd with their signs and cries for humanitarianism, then hung his head with a tired resignation.

I left the march and went back to talk to him.

At forty seven, Melvin’s two trash bags held the bulk of his possessions. He seemed tired mostly because he was travelling to nowhere. He said he once worked but became disabled. He never mentioned the nature of the disability but said he was “from the area” and had moved several times over the course of his residency.

There was a malaise about Melvin who said that his disability check was not nearly enough for him to live from day to day and that he didn’t think seeking government housing was even worth it. We chatted about how he spends his time moving from public bench to stairwell, to free places like the bus station and public library to beat the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer. The soup kitchens help but walking there is a challenge because his feet are often swollen. The shelters are like social combat zones where one has to sleep with one eye open to protect already scant possessions.

He massaged his forehead and shook his head often, as if he needed some extra circulation to explain why the stairwell had become his Sunday afternoon sanctuary. Cars whizzed by. People passed by. Melvin and I went unnoticed.

By the time I got around to asking him about health care and whether he was on a daily regimen of medication he became disengaged but promised to go to the Social Security Office the following day to see if they could refer him to housing.

…this is what America looks like.…rang the now fading chant.

Melvin reached in to the plastic bag to his left, retrieved a cap and placed it on his head.

It was getting cold. It was time for him to move.

I bade him farewell and left.

It was an uncomfortable juxtaposition.

People who must flee their lands of birth to escape mass slaughter by dictators who kill them to retain power is a failure of nations all over the world… as is the flight of immigrants who walk for miles and months to the borders of America for safe haven, for a better life on a planet that survives only because of our coexistence.

Melvins’ lives matter, I thought. The call for love and humanity had become uncomfortably nuanced.

America’s pledge to humanitarianism can be traced as far back the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations and it’s appended agencies  ….

But there is an underlying hypocrisy here because millions of Americans are not receiving the humanitarianism that America exports to hundreds of countries and provides so generously to immigrants and refugees making their way here for a chance at life. Comparatively, they are new comers. Don’t Americans deserve this too?

Statistics from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and National Alliance to End Homelessness paint an almost damning picture.

They estimate that some 2.5 to 3.5 million people sleep in stairwells, park benches, subway stations,  shelters, under bridges, transitional housing and in the bushes that line some freeways. Some 7.4 million share residence with friends and family on an interim basis, having lost their own homes or places of residence. And, though they say that their figures may not be accurate because of the way different states report their numbers, they declare that these numbers are very representative of the dismal circumstances too many in this country that is so generous to others, have to endure.

A look at the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless Point In Time report, SCCHPIT, will bring this picture closer to home.

The US government, irrespective of party, likes the appearance of championing humanitarianism, especially since it retains its seat at the head of every United Nations table, solidifying the country’s claims at world leadership. But the painful truth is that funding for the  needs of American citizens, who have fallen victim to social circumstances, is often done as an omnibus bill- attached to several other bills, which demand that law makers prioritize needs, play a sort of funding roulette, often relegating or outright removing funding from social programs, pejoratively referred to as ‘entitlements’, that service many.

There is a vulgar kind of nobleness in the carefully crafted interrelationship  amongst  government, religious and philanthropic agencies which have established a perverse inter-dependency in the name of giving for refugees and immigrants and the homeless. Billions of dollars are made available through a very convoluted pipeline but much of it makes its way back upstream in the name of tax shelters.

That the chronic homelessness of Americans remains a political bargaining  chip is singularly reprehensible; out done only by states and cities that declare themselves sanctuaries for refugees and immigrants without forging legislation to force states to reduce chronic homelessness and poverty by the mandatory construction of homes and the establishment of  agencies to ensure that they are made available to the State’s homeless according to policy.

An incentive program for the State could make this happen.

And this is not an anti immigrant or anti refugee call. It is a call for the US Government and all of the Agencies clamoring to rescue refugees and immigrants to treat our American Citizens who are homeless and poverty stricken with the same degree of priority and humanitarianism as refugees and immigrants.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the homeless population is not one that is, typically, mentally ill or addicted to illegal drugs. Millions of the homeless are victims of predatory loans that forced them into foreclosure. Many are, also, victims of legislation that shipped jobs to other countries to take advantage of business-oriented tax loopholes. Republicans favor a system that gives tax breaks to companies that ‘headquarter’ their business in another country while Democrats favor a ‘global tax’ system that would apply to earnings in any country, thus ensuring that companies pay their fair share. Partisan posturing continues to subordinate the dire need for employment in the country. In the end it nets campaign donations to politicians…

….Which gives us the Melvins and the quandary of exercising a mandate of humanitarianism by fumbling its discharge to tugging politically -correct demands.

America’s wealth stands at an almost steady $48.8 trillion so there is abundant capacity to end homelessness. But  the underlying causes that affect this issue have taken on more of an ideological/partisan, than humanitarian focus.  The lack of housing and poverty are a social inheritance that is not addressed honestly, earnestly or with the necessary finality. There are components that need to be addressed with particular singularity.  Americans of African descent account for 47% of the nation’s homeless population.  That’s not only stunning but it is telling of a system that still maintains distance between this segment of the population and fair footing. Components like education and healthcare must be factored in to a remedy while the elitist view that those in need must be responsible for their own welfare must be extracted from it.

Contrary to some political suggestion, fixing homelessness and poverty must remain the purview of government. Suggesting that churches and charitable organizations take over this debilitating socioeconomic ill, will never guarantee a uniform fix for the victims of this malaise. And politicians should pledge to do more for the homeless even though they may not be a reliable voting block. Constituencies, too, have  a role to play here. They should be demanding that their politicians do more to alleviate the surge of people living in public spaces.

We’re in a  period of populism, where the rights of refugees and immigrants are being fought for in the name of the humanitarianism, America’s  social flag ship.

If our collective conscience is in the right place the rights of Melvin  will be right there, on that bargaining table, being fought for just as fiercely.



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