News your connection to The Boston Globe

The invisible homeless

IN THE recent debates, a question about the rising incidence of AIDS among black women in America came up and was neatly brushed aside. Another question about what to say to those who have lost their jobs in the last four years was posed, but this too was effectively skirted. And although the rising cost of housing was touted as hard proof of this country's economic vitality, its flip side, the question of what to do about the problem of homelessness in America, never even arose.

In the 1980s I worked in a homeless shelter in Boston.

During those years my father, whom I didn't know, got evicted from his Beacon Hill rooming house and ended up homeless for a number of years. When he wasn't working day labor, my father spent a lot of time in the Boston Public Library, as do many homeless people. All that is required is that you have a book opened in front of you, and that you don't fall asleep.

Those who spend time in libraries are generally not the stereotypical homeless, not the guy asking for a quarter on your corner, but one of the invisible homeless, the category into which most of the homeless fall. Many work minimum wage jobs which don't come close to paying the rent on a market rate apartment (89 hours of work a week are required to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the median state); many are children in elementary schools (1.5 million at last count).

If you saw my father reading his newspaper on a bench in the Boston Common the years he was sleeping in the shelter, if you thought of him at all you would assume he was perhaps a retiree, out for a little sun at midday. Since he didn't look all that different from your average businessman, it would require an imaginative leap to assume he was in the same situation as the man standing next to a burning trash barrel, laughing maniacally.

What we think of as homelessness in America is a fairly recent phenomenon, with the ranks beginning to swell in the mid-1980s and continuing to grow geometrically since.

I generally refrain from pointing a finger directly at Ronald Reagan as the prime cause, although he did cut or gut many of the safety nets we, as a society, had built up since the Depression. It's not that he cut funding to shelters (he didn't) -- it's that before he took office there wasn't such an overwhelming need for shelters, and after eight years of his policies it was inconceivable not to have one in every city in America.

More significantly, I believe he unleashed the sense that reckless profiteerism was not only OK but to be admired, and many people bought into that mindset, and here we are.

By the mid-1990s, homelessness was already considered a problem that "may not be solvable," according to then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. By now, a mere 20 years along, 20-year-olds have grown up unable to imagine a city where they do not have to step over humans to walk down the sidewalk.

And now we've had nearly four years of George W. Bush.

Poverty rates have increased, jobs have been lost, and more people are without health insurance. The minimum wage has not risen since 1996-97. Franz Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for poetry, said recently that only the capacity for imagination can distinguish between the two candidates.

It is unlikely that either Bush or Kerry, who are essentially from the same class background, have spent much time among the disenfranchised of this country. But there are clear differences.

For one, Bush, who jokes that his base consists of the "haves and the have-mores," did not travel outside the United States before he became president, which might strike some as profoundly lack of curiosity, to say the least.

Kerry, as even those so-called Swift Boat Veterans cannot dispute, spent a good deal of time overseas, leading a group of soldiers who, in all likelihood, were from very different class backgrounds than he was. And then he synthesized what he experienced and came back to America to protest our involvement in Vietnam.

What does this suggest? At least the possibility that Kerry contains the imagination necessary to empathize with those outside his realm. And only through empathy can we see the effects of poverty on our fellow citizens, especially those who are invisible to us.

Nick Flynn is author of "Another (expletive) Night in Suck City." 

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months