Poverty: the New Leprosy?Published Saturday, December 3, 2011 2:05 amby John Rehill

BRADENTON -- It can be disturbing, sitting at a traffic-light trying to figure out what's for dinner or who's going to pick up the kids when someone pops up next to your window with a bucket or a can, asking for some spare change. It feels like they've invaded your space, threatened your well-being and you just want to get home. Contrary to popular belief, that's all that most of those asking for change want to do themselves and getting something in their stomach just might get them a little closer to the front door -- assuming they have a place to call home.

In reality, there are few and far between that really choose to make a life of begging and pleading for their next meal. Pride and self worth must step aside when their hunger takes over and they do what they can to get through another day. There are a lot of circumstances that put people in a position to where they find themselves homeless and on the street. Still, some observers elect to label those less fortunate then themselves as self-destructive and there by their own choice.

One might find it extremely difficult, even with a wall-full of social science degrees, to make an assessment about an individual from such a brief encounter or observation; yet many do. Most often, these shoot-from-the-hip diagnoses are more self-serving to what someone wants to believe than anything else.

What is at stake is not just the life that stands on the corner, or the one that stands next to it. It's what's going on in the hearts of those that sit and look through the glass and assess the entire situation from there. Not to say we should open the car door, tell them to jump in and take them home for dinner, but what will we tell ourselves that allows us to see them as insignificant and a nuisance, instead of a human being whose luck has taken a frightful turn.

To label someone persona-non-grata or outcast just because they are homeless or impoverished has connotations far more troubling to a healthy society than someone on the skids. What ever happened to; there but for the grace of God go I.Aren't our hearts supposed to be full of charity, compassion and grace?

When having discussions on homelessness and poverty, many often describe a narrative that either groups each one as someone who has given up, or as one who must want to be vagrant. Believing these myths allows us to separate ourselves from those who are no more than less fortunate than most, and enables us to distance ourselves from them.

In the 15 years past, I have occasionally thrown a giant pot of soup together, bought some bread, taken all my saved hotel soaps and shampoos to hit the streets and feed and talk to those without a roof over their heads. Not only have the numbers of the hungry and in need slowly grown higher and higher over the years, but what now makes up a large number of the down-and-outers consists of entire families. Sometimes I'd try and get a friend, a family member or even someone I just met to go and dish out soup with me. Any that did came away with a different view,

What they find out is that these vagrants are the neighbors whose house was foreclosed a few months ago; they are the dude from the cleaners that shut down last June and the couple everyone used to talk to at the little league games that had a medical misfortune. They are the guy we hoped would be let go, instead of us, when the boss cut the workforce; the woman who always made sure everyone got the freshest pastries, but fell ill with no insurance; and they are you and me if things don't get better. Far too many in America suffer from the it can't happen to me syndrome.

"In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of."

Confucius

The term austerity is not a cure. It's an additional wound to the already injured. Whether implemented locally, nationally or globally, the concept assumes the ones responsible for the ill fate of the economy are the ones with the wherewithal to fix it. They are the ones that made the economic decisions that have been eroding the quality of life in exchange for unprecedented corporate and personal wealth. Not one bill, not one law, or one piece of legislation has yours or my name on it. They are each and every one signed by the Senate, the House, and Presidents, both current and past. Austerity eats the safety nets that have taken many decades to construct, have been put there for good reason, and now have been slashed and gutted with less than a dime of ink.

Not one cent has been cut from the salaries of those whose tea leaves spelt out disaster for the rest of us. Those deciders who conjured up a plan that gave those whom had already made their fortunes, a tax break, rewarding them with an additional $10 TRILLION over the last decade. We were sold that bad bill of goods, with a promise to secure our future and create jobs. We know now where that investment went. It went to moving our jobs overseas. It went into the coffers of corporations and the wallets of the elite that run them.

The argument for that? The dubious claim that these corporations provide essentials that favor us all, like oil, communication, insurance and financial networks, and that somehow those handouts will come back to reward us -- that a rising tide lifts all boats. The truth is simple; Wall Street and its banks have gambled our investments, savings and pension funds into ruins. The public bail-outs did little more than prop up banks to expeditiously foreclose on the tens of millions of homes that have been caught up in their malfeasance. All of the interests mentioned have taken a position to capitalize from the very misfortunes they created by further penalizing their victims -- austerity.

Bloomberg reports that there are over 76 million owner-occupied homes in the U.S. There have been 7 million homes foreclosed on since 2006 and there are more than 5 million more seriously delinquent on the foreclosure shelf. Now 50 percent of homes in America are underwater (not worth what is owed) and 46 million people are living on food stamps. There are many millions not being counted and most of them are on the streets. Who is it that thinks they couldn't possibly find themselves in dire-straits.

With that many living in poverty, tens of millions are now unable to afford the stuff the middle-class was selling, forcing the middle class to curtail their spending and if the current trends persist, the number of those in poverty and homeless will certainly climb.

What is happening in the U.S. has all of the signs of an economic cleansing. Similar to an ethnic cleansing, it is important to demonize the opposing views as if their mere existence were threatening to one's own survival. To sympathize with persona-non-gratas is seen as disloyal and dangerous to the status quo. In other words, Don't feed the animals at this zoo.

When there are too many animals to put in cages, the only safe place is in one.

The richest 400 people in the U.S. have more wealth then the poorest 150 million. That's one to every 375,000. This means 400 have more power to sway media, political agendas, educational curriculum and judiciaries, than half of the population of the country. And in that half, there are 16 million children that live in extreme poverty. Who represents them?

In a dog eat dog world, who doesn't think that 400 whom have more influence then 150 million others, isn't going to decide who gets to bite and who gets bitten. Such desperate realities might be easier to swallow if we were living in a meritocracy, but as more and more of Wall Street is exposed, it becomes clearer that many of those who are winning are simply cheating there way to the top in a manner so ruthless as to say, those not willing to sell souls and step on necks need not apply.

Of the millions of families that now live in despair, many of the children live in fear of being taken from their parents and entered into the system. It's the reckless and inflammatory accusations that identify homelessness as equal to mentally unstable and unfit, that force many families to live in the shadows. Afraid to let the schools or even some assistant programs know they are living out of a camper, truck or tent, the children pretend to still live at home. That same self-righteous behavior of those that deem the homeless repugnant and undeserving makes it easy for family services to remove children from the custody of their loving parents, and many have.

We build sea-walls and levees around towns to protect the lowest parts, not what's up on the hill. But those on the hill know all too well that if too much goes down the river, so do they. We can easily remedy much of the poverty and injustice that is increasingly encroaching upon our lives by simply seeing each other as no less than human beings.

To marginalize others, just shrinks your heart. This year, consider giving the gift of love and help keep your families and friends together for the holidays and thereafter. Don't drive by your hungry brothers and sisters to pump up China's treasury. Get involved -- support shelters and soup kitchens, and vote those out that are responsible for them being there in the first place.

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