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Anecdote: The Homeless

Summer, 2009.  Phoenix, AZ

I just returned from a trip to Los Angeles.  There, the fact of life that struck me hardest was not the traffic, though it was mostly horrendous; not the weather, which stood in wonderful contrast to that where I live; not the view of the Pacific Ocean from Santa Monica, which was beautiful; but the stark division between the ways that people live.  In particular, I was struck by the contrast between Mercedes-driving homeowners, who lunched at nice cafes and the homeless, who slept under overpasses and ate whatever handouts they could find or coerce from people who had money.  Of course, homelessness is not unique to Los Angeles, and this was not by any means the first time I had witnessed it in a large city.  In fact, what struck me was the consistency of the experience of division–of difference–across the the United States and in my memory since I was a child.  Another obvious point is that I can only speak for myself and for my own experience of difference regarding this topic.  Yet there is something consistently troubling about the ways in which it is addressed as a phenomenon.  Although there are a few histories of homelessness on record, I know of none that deviate fully from the notion that it is a scourge or social problem that should be solved.  We perceive the homeless as people with mental or physical disabilities, drug addictions, or severe financial difficulties.  Rarely do we acknowledge the burden placed upon people by the western “work ethic,” the consumer culture on which economic stability depends, or a culture that does not tolerate true diversity of opinion:  minds that reject the generally accepted idea of civilization.  Although homelessness is a problem particularly in the modern period, which promises progress and improvement, the phenomenon we call “homelessness” is a symbol of the timeless problem of civlization.  Civilization can tolerate, in other words, only a limited degree of diversity and dissent.  It cannot accommodate both its own rules and that which exists beyond those rules.  It relies, therefore, on a practiced ignorance of the other.  On the fringes, of course, we acknowledge the homeless; we try to help them through charitable means made possible by the rules of civil society.  But there is always the notion that they are beyond help.  As long as people remain outside certain boundaries of social behavior, they are treated as something other than civilized entities.  And I suspect that this has always been part of the definition of civilization, albeit a part that is now customarily ignored.

Yet I believe that homelessness is today not primarily a function of social hierarchy and class but a function of the perception of what is and is not part of the modern ideal of progress.  It defies the notion that democracy works for all people; it accentuates the failures of modernity.  It is part of our definition of humanity that we cannot squarely face because to do so is to question the foundations of modern civil society.  We suspect, after all, that for every homeless person there are several others who abide by the rules of society though they may wish to escape them completely.  They hang on, often in that quiet desperation to which literate people refer but dare not investigate with their whole minds and bodies. The devil we know is preferable to that which we don’t know.  And the ignore-ance of phenomena that define the boundaries of society fractures the mind and inhibits the expression of a secret desperation to know.  If only there were absolute security in knowing, in venturing just beyond the illusory lines of progress, the forward-moving train of being–the prison of time itself–then we might consider taking a peek.


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