Invisible and hurting

Many of my friends have been incredibly generous with donations of food, money, toiletries and blankets to the St. Louis Homeless Winter Outreach volunteers.  These volunteers go out on really cold nights to find people without a place to sleep indoors.  Can you imagine sleeping outside with temperatures near zero?  I can’t imagine how painful it must be to be that cold.  I complain when I’m outside just for a short time without gloves on.  My hands actually hurt.

How much more must it hurt to be out in the cold wind day and night all winter.  My friend Tina told me today that there seems to be “an explosion” of people trying to survive outdoors.  She doesn’t know where they are all coming from.  Some may have been trying to get through the worst of the winter inside abandoned buildings, but temperatures even inside can be life threatening.  On Tuesday night, the Winter Outreach volunteers were out until 11:30 p.m. taking people to shelters.  They found men huddled on the grates near the Savvis Center with no blankets.  The one shelter in a city-owned building took in over 100 people that night.  That’s not even counting the other temporary shelters in churches and the New Life Evangelistic Center.

There was a letter in the Post Dispatch on Monday by someone very concerned about the damage being done to low income people by our state legislature and the U.S. Congress.  The Republicans in the state legislature refuse to expand Medicaid, while the Congress is cutting food stamps and unemployment compensation.  Every time I open the paper or watch the news there is a story about income inequality.  The facts are clear.  The richest people in the U.S. have done phenomenally well while  working and middle class families have had to learn to make do with less and less.  Many of the homeless are actually working full time but don’t make enough money to pay rent, utilities, etc.  If they have family or friends with a couch or extra bed, that’s like heaven next to living under a bridge.

This is outrageously inhumane in the richest country the world has ever known.  There have to be better ways to protect our fellow citizens than relying on a handful of volunteers to search for people freezing outdoors and taking them to temporary shelters where they have to leave again in the morning.  The City of St. Louis relies on volunteer organizations to staff their emergency shelter and provide food.  I’m really not in a position to know why the City can’t budget for emergencies like this, but it seems like it should be a top priority.  I know they get millions of dollars from HUD to provide services for the homeless.

The TV weather forecasters tell us to “bundle up” when we “head out the door in the morning.”  I wonder if they ever think about people who don’t have the means to “bundle up” and don’t even have a door.  If there were more attention by the media to the plight of the homeless, we would surely see more effort by the decision makers to find solutions to this problem.

The bottom line for the Winter Outreach volunteers is to keep people from freezing to death.  That’s a pretty grim mission statement.  Tina said they work so hard to get people into shelters because they don’t want to pull back a pile of blankets and find a frozen corpse.

Is this what has become of us?  We mark our progress as a society when no one freezes to death?  What happens when the volunteers find their first body?  Will the goal then be to avoid letting five people freeze to death?  Or ten?  This is what happens when we allow our elected leaders to serve and protect the robber barons and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

Every cut in programs that serve the poor “trickles down” and causes terrible pain.  You might say it’s death by a thousand cuts.

Let’s stop rationalizing and blaming the victim.  That’s what the Republicans want us to do.  If a child starves or has to huddle under blankets all night in an abandoned building, the hard-hearted politicians say it’s the parents’ fault for not making better choices.  That’s a cop out and a lie.  We’ve also been fed the story that homelessness is such a complex problem that no one can solve it.  Well, we can start by making sure everyone has the minimum of a warm place to sleep and a hot meal.