Shattuck: Homelessness is an issue for everyone

By By Ryan Shattuck and By Ryan Shattuck

By Ryan Shattuck

I woke up around 6:30 a.m. because of my dog’s persistent whining. I slipped on my flip-flops and proceeded to take the dog outside to use the bathroom. While descending the stairs of my apartment hallway, I nearly tripped over a man in his mid-40s, curled up and sound asleep. The man was homeless.

I’m assuming he jimmied the lock to my “secure” apartment building and had decided to seek shelter anywhere he could because it was snowing. I gently woke him up and told him I wouldn’t call the police as long as he promised to leave. He agreed to do so, and I discovered later that morning that he had indeed left my apartment building.

Those who doubt that Salt Lake City has a homeless problem have clearly never been to Pioneer Park in the summer time. Those who believe that the homeless of Salt Lake City are few in number have never driven past Rio Grande Street. Those who are willing to admit that Salt Lake City has a homeless problem but would rather ignore it have never discovered a homeless person asleep just outside their door.

It should be said that if Salt Lake City has a significant homeless problem, then the United States — with a national homeless population of approximately 3.5 million people — has a significant homeless crisis. After paying no attention to the homeless epidemic that has plagued our nation for years, we are slowly being forced to look the epidemic in its hungry face and admit that we’ve fallen short.

Considering that approximately 1 percent of the population has nowhere to sleep at night, it must be asked whether there is any truth to the idea that we’ve become “two Americas.”

If all of Utah were suddenly forced to sleep on the streets at night, the outcry would be so great that America would demand change from its leaders, not with votes and ballots but with pitchforks and torches.

Nevertheless, a population larger than that of Utah finds itself spending every night in such opulent locations as communal shelters and cold park benches. Where is the outcry of the citizenry over such an injustice? Is it being muffled by a citizenry who is too busy becoming annoyed when asked for spare change?

Who should be blamed for the negligence of such a large population? Are these calamitous numbers a result of a failure in public policy or, as some would suggest, should the fault be squarely aimed at the homeless themselves? The simple answer would be to blame the homeless directly, assuming they bring such dire conditions upon themselves. The complex and realistic answer, though, is to understand that homeless people come from all walks of life and that the reasons for homelessness are as varied as the individuals themselves.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the causes for becoming homeless range from the more extreme causes of drug and alcohol addictions and mental illnesses to such benign causes as divorce, job loss and hospitalization.

With the economy continuing its downward spiral, the topic of homelessness remains a more relevant topic than ever before. Middle class families who might already be financially overextended are losing their homes, thanks in no part to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Those who yesterday wouldn’t have given a second thought to a beggar on the street are now being forced to scrape the bottom of their savings and rely on the kindness of family and friends to avoid becoming homeless themselves. Many people have gone through a divorce, have been laid off or have suffered from mental illnesses because of serving our country in a military capacity. One out of every hundred of us lose our homes due to these everyday life events. Shouldn’t empathy be more prevalent as these are life events to which nearly everyone can relate?

I assume that I’m not the only person who, upon being asked for spare change, has rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Why can’t he just get a job?” I avoid judging people by their race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation — and yet, do I make an exception when it comes to judging people by their economic status?

Most homeless advocates would agree that giving spare change to the homeless does more harm than good. Nevertheless, are we exercising the other options available that would cause more good than harm, such as volunteering at shelters and making sure legislation is being passed to protect the homeless? At the very least, are we treating the homeless population with respect?

Looking back on my decision to ask the homeless man in my apartment building to leave, I can’t say that this was necessarily the best decision I could have made. How would most people react?

On the one hand, most people wouldn’t likely feel that comfortable knowing that a homeless person was asleep just outside their apartment door. On the other hand, though, it’s rather presumptuous of me to feel as though I have the authority to send a human being into the winter cold at 6:30 in the morning.

I don’t know why this particular man was homeless. Perhaps he had a drug or alcohol problem. Maybe he had a mental illness from having served in Vietnam. He might have just recently lost his job or his family. I don’t know why he was homeless, but I do know that it’s not my place to judge him.

Not because homeless people are just like us, but because they are us.

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