Homelessness: What Became of Tramps and Hobos?

There have always been those in society that, for one reason or another, live a life of poverty on the street, begging for money, shelter or some manner of sustenance from those who have the means.

In three of the four gospels, Jesus is recorded as saying, “…you will always have the poor with you.” And in Mark 14:7 with the added words, “…whenever you want, you can do good for them.”

Fair enough. As Christians we understand that we should do what we can to help the poor and needy. Christian charity is foundational to Western civilization and the positive impact it has had on the world for human dignity and the establishment of basic human rights.

While we do indeed always have the poor with us, historically, the actual number of people living on the streets has risen and fallen with the economy over time. Economic good times bring jobs and prosperity to our communities, making it possible for folks to earn the money they need to fend for themselves, raise families and give back to society. Economic hard times such as the 1930’s great depression gave rise to widespread poverty; those grainy images of soup lines and despair. Men climbing onto boxcars as they ride the rails looking for work. As our culture tends to do, we romanticized these events with stories of tramps and hobos. Charlie Chaplin. King of the Road.

Lessons learned from the past produced social safety nets, welfare programs and the like so that, for the most part, those in need today are taken care of if they avail themselves of those services.

So what’s happening on our streets? Why has homelessness become so widespread? Homeless camps are ubiquitous, our streets are fouled with garbage, feces and discarded hypodermic needles. Whole neighborhoods are becoming no-go zones as a result. But not a hobo or tramp in sight.

Homeless shelters abound, but in warmer climes its not unusual to find half-empty shelters in areas with overflowing homeless camps. People seem to be choosing the homeless lifestyle. But why?

Activists would have us believe that homelessness is all about families, women and their children turned out onto the street through lack of employment and/or affordable housing. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that these cases do exist. But if you look around your local homeless encampment, the families with children are hard to find. Instead, there are the mentally challenged, the drug addicts and the alcoholics, garnished with idealistic youths dreaming of a mellow lifestyle involving campfires, guitars and camaraderie. Kumbaya.

Its not about homelessness in the sense that people can’t find homes. We need to find a new word to describe those who live this way. Outcasts, castaways or, perhaps more accurately, the neglected.

The core population of the neglected are the mentally challenged and the addicted. Its not hard to understand how the mentally challenged end up on the street. We long ago abandoned them for a couple of reasons; a lack of funding for institutional care, and a misguided policy of protecting the right of patients to live freely in society. Many of the mentally challenged are incapable of functioning as free agents. They can’t hold down a job or maintain a home, its like leaving a five-year-old to fend for themselves, and the results are sadly predictable.

As for the addicted, their stories are all too familiar. A steady decline as they pursue their next high, graduating from drug to hard drug until they’re indistinguishable from the mentally ill. Doing whatever they need to do to survive. Crime, prostitution. Anything at all.

It hard to tell them apart, the addicts and the mentally challenged. The mentally challenged who find themselves on the street soon fall prey to drug pushers, those purveyors of death for whom business has never been so good since we emptied the mental institutions.

Remember those scenes in movies and television of the dreadful mental asylum? Patients in the hallways blabbering nonsense. Straitjackets, padded cells. We had to do something about that didn’t we? We had to set them free. Poor souls.

Now take a look at the goings on in your local tent city. Residents blabbering nonsense, violence, filth and squalor. Malnutrition, overdoses and death. What an improvement!

Again, the activists would have us believe that the problem will go away if we provide affordable (read free) housing for our street people. But all too often, when offered shelter, the addicts and mentally challenged decline on the basis that there are too many rules. In shelters and social housing, they’re not allowed to indulge the lifestyle they prefer. Instead they must maintain cleanliness and civility, and perhaps even obey the law. Not an option for many. Its not that they’re necessarily unwilling, they’re simply unable to adapt.

We know that as Christians we need to help in some way, but our options are limited. We can continue to support food banks, homeless shelters and such, and we certainly should do whatever we can to alleviate suffering and deprivation, but how do we solve the problem?

Some say we can’t. After all, Jesus did say that we’d always have the poor with us. But I don’t believe this is about poverty. Its about how we, as a society, have neglected those who are demonstrably unable to care for themselves. As I said, left to their own devices the mentally challenged are preyed upon by drug pushers and soon become indistinguishable from the broader addict population.

At great cost we institutionalize criminals to protect society, but for some reason we’re unable to institutionalize the mentally ill for their own protection. This is a health crisis. People need care and should not have to live on the streets without the cognitive capacity to make the right choices and defend themselves from predators.

As for the drug problem – just say no. Well, that didn’t work. Declare a war on drugs? That hasn’t worked either. The answer is obvious, but we don’t have the courage to say it out loud.

Here’s a thought. There are no homeless encampments in Singapore. There are no addicts visible on the streets. One can walk anywhere at night without fear. How is that so? I recall travelling across a bridge from Malaysia into Singapore some years ago and seeing a large billboard just ahead as I approached the border. Its message was clear, “Warning: Death for Drug Traffickers Under Singapore Law.” No drug problem in Singapore.

Maybe we don’t want that for our society, but in a democracy, we’re supposed to have the right to build the society we do want. It’s time we exercised that right at the ballot box. What do we really want to do about the neglected and their predators?

What would Jesus want us to do?

Add a comment or question about the content on this page.