By Jim Towey
No group in America has been hit harder by Covid and its aftermath than the homeless.
Government officials who tabulated the pandemic’s casualties never bothered to track how many homeless died. Early on media outlets like Time magazine reported the dire consequences that followed the mandated shuttering of shelters, soup kitchens, church basement programs, and day programming activities previously available to those with nowhere to go.
Did we think we could simply push every homeless man, woman and child onto the pavement and hope for the best? I watched this tragedy play out in Washington, DC when the mayor closed the shelters and soup kitchens, purportedly motivated by health and humanitarian concerns. The homeless I spoke with did not feel the love. They had 99 problems and Covid wasn’t one.
Efforts to track homeless deaths by the government were horribly inept, leading to a suspected massive but unprovable undercounting. And even if the cause of death wasn’t technically Covid, the death tolls for the homeless due to drug overdose could fairly be linked to the despair that comes from being counted by society as nothing. They had become invisible to us, even though we saw them everywhere, either begging or despondent, defeated by life.
Seeing it up close
I was in Miami and San Francisco this past week and saw first-hand the destitution and despair of individuals and families with no place to call home. These tourist destinations may be 3,000 miles apart but they are united (with Los Angeles) as the preferred destinations for those with nowhere to call home.
Miami has always had a homeless problem. Year-round idyllic weather and a reputation for welcoming Cubans, Haitians and other immigrants have made the city a mecca for those with nothing but the clothes on their backs. And according to my contacts in city government and within faith-based organizations, the homeless situation has become worse than ever.
That is saying a lot. I directed Dade County’s health and human services agency in the early 1990’s and participated in the community-wide effort to end homelessness. Homelessness won. Give the city credit for trying and even successfully expanding the number of shelter and recovery programs available.
High hopes, no plans
But even with those gains, nothing now in place can handle the wave of undocumented individuals who line the pavement out in front of the Missionaries of Charity’s soup kitchen and shelter, as well as other area missions. Whole families arrive in Miami from Venezuela with high hopes and no plans. Most end up sleeping on the concrete and numbering among the hundreds who eat in the MC’s soup kitchen every day. The undocumented cannot access the city’s relief programs and so they must beg.
In San Francisco, the homeless situation is complicated further by the prevalence of drug users and their “addiction enablers.” The government’s “harm reduction” initiative to give out clean needles and create safe spaces for addicts to shoot up, is a glaring example of false compassion. Over 50 people die each month in San Francisco from an accidental drug overdose. I question how “accidental” it is when a person who feels he or she has no reason to live, escapes to a drug-induced stupor. In California, the death toll among the homeless has swelled.
The “greying” homeless
Even sadder, there is a troubling “greying” of the street people I saw. Elder homelessness is on the rise in America. In Miami, I was told that individuals who fled Cuba many decades ago now find themselves squeezed out of their homes in Hialeah by the rising cost of housing in the area. Where will they go? In all probability, they will number among the ranks of the invisible homeless, and may one day die on the streets. I saw two very sick and aged adults slumped on the pavement by Mother Teresa’s home in downtown Miami. They had been recently discharged from a nearby hospital. The homeless situation in many parts of our country is worsening and will continue to as long as our country’s borders remain overrun and the fentanyl crisis spreads unabated. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once asked me, “Who will care for the poor when I am gone?” Fortunately, many brave, dedicated men and women have stepped forward, thank God. Their efforts may be only a drop in the ocean, but as Mother once observed, “the ocean is better for the drop.”