The Jewish prophet and Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth mentioned the "poor" in one of his many sermons in the Judean hill country nearly two thousand years ago. His attention to their plight echoes with solemn importance and obliges us today to give heed to ourselves and our mutual responsibility as our brother's keeper. All societies have the arduous task of dealing with the issue of homelessness and poverty; it is a problem that will not simply just go away. In America, supporters and critics alike have weighed in on this topic of intense public debate with the interest of shaping social policy.
Some proponents feel that it is a religious duty to help the needy, poor, and the homeless in our midst. They believe that it is the moral imperative and obligation of an enlightened society in such a prosperous and wealthy nation as America to perform this form of social philanthropy. Detractors, on the other hand, feel that this is a waste of valuable resources and that, "if a person doesn't work, then neither should they eat". These individuals charge that the local, state, and federal programs are nothing more than social welfare (socialism), forcing the already heavily burdened taxpayer to pick up the tab (absorb the costs incurred with implementation of these programs) to the detriment of other needed services such as building larger jails and prisons for criminal offenders and funding the efforts to combat the threat of "global terrorism".
Perhaps the desire to help the less fortunate stems in part from our common humanity. The need to reach out and help someone suffering and in dire deprivation is our way of validating ourselves as human; as caring, sympathetic and compassionate beings, connecting with those whom society has discarded, forgotten and deemed as worthless. There are citizens who consider themselves upright, God-fearing, and patriotic that look down upon the homeless and poor as one would do to social lepers, or even as a cancer, a horrible disease to be avoided (like HIV/AIDS). Others see them as an embarrassment, an experiment gone horribly wrong, a scourge, a blight, a problem that some wish would just quietly go away or disappear.
To observe the legions of nameless faces, wandering nomads pandering for the most meager and basic human needs is visually disturbing. They remind us how vulnerable we are and that reality makes us feel uncomfortable. They are our mirrors and we don't like what we see. We live in denial, isolation and avoidance, rejecting the painful and pitiful images of ourselves. We convince ourselves that "we could never end up like that"; never realizing that any homeless person might have imagined the same thing before circumstances to the contrary placed them in this very desperate and humiliating situation.
And what about all the resources allocated to assist the homeless and poor? Despite all the community-based, religious or faith-based and governmental efforts to help the poor and homeless, all such entities receive a failing grade. The reason for such a harsh assessment is that all these programs, no matter how well-intentioned, only foster dependency; that is, they only "perpetuate homeless and poverty" instead of helping to eradicate it. All these measures on the surface merit great praise, however they are temporary and mask the failures of these organizations to successfully and effectively to integrate the individual back into society with a high degree of self-worth and confidence. It seems that the only persons who permanently escape this condition rely on "personal faith," individual effort, or with the help of charitable strangers.
The question to be asked is: "what's wrong with these outreaches and why do they fail so miserably?" In the first place, homelessness and poverty needs to be reevaluated not only in America, but worldwide. All the available resources and emphasis is directed towards treating the' symptoms' and not in the cure. Homeless and poverty are a disease and should be designated so by the WHO (World Health Organization), NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), APA (American Psychiatric Association), the AMA (American Medical Association) and other agencies or professional organizations dealing with physical and mental health. Just as mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction are a disease, so is homelessness and poverty. In fact, these maladies create a downward spiral into the deepest levels of poverty and homelessness. Waiting lists are increasing for admittance to shelters and with federal subsidies too low and the income of renters shrinking, the poor and homeless may find that it is much easier to just give up completely; on themselves and society as a whole.
The true measure of affluence for any nation is the health of all its citizens, and America is gradually and increasingly becoming a two-class society; one rich, and the other poor. Will America accept the challenge and rise up to fulfill her creed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all her children, or is it just for the "privileged" few? In the midst of the most marvelous architecturally designed buildings and skyscrapers reaching ever skyward toward the heavens, one finds squalor. Will these magnificent structures that represent the pinnacle of technological achievement and advancement be marred in contrast by the encampments of tent cities inhabited by those whom such an enlightened society deems marginal and invisible?
The poor you have with you always; the enigmatic statement spoken nearly two millennia ago that either compels us to want to share and participate in each others misfortune, or to turn a deaf ear to those whom we should treat with dignity, compassion, and respect. It is an individual choice, and as Jesus of Nazareth reminded those in the regions of Galilee and Judea, "insomuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have also done it unto me."