After seeing the powerful film “12 Years a Slave,” I found myself despising the slave owners. How could otherwise decent, God-fearing people participate in this institution, clearly abhorrent to anyone with eyes to see? With slavery all around them, did it seem normal, inevitable, even right?
Now I’ve asked myself about a condition that in my lifetime seems to have become a new normal. Recently, I was on a Road Scholar (Elderhostel) program in Portland, Ore. Knowledgeable speakers introduced us to the storied past and dynamic present of the city. Yet in downtown Portland the homeless, young and old, stood around on the streets, some days in the pouring rain. Outside trendy restaurants, after our tasty meals, they waited, asking for help.
“Would you like this sandwich?” I asked one older woman.
“I’m always hungry,” she answered, as I handed her the boxed-up portion of a hearty brew pub lunch.
It’s not, of course, a situation unique to Portland. Driving Interstate 5 into Seattle from the south, look to the embankment to your right. Make-shift camps are scattered in the woods for several miles of your car trip. In Seattle, early morning office workers and Sunday morning church-goers hurry by doorways of sleeping bodies. Those without shelter in rural areas may be hidden, but they suffer equally. Is this what we have come to accept? Government and charitable shelters provide beds but are overwhelmed by men, women, and entire families without a place to sleep.
While the causes of this human crisis are complex, we cannot look away. Putting up signs, as some towns have done, warning us not to give money to “panhandlers,” will not do. Those worried about misuse of cash can provide gift cards for inexpensive markets or restaurants. My sister in Eugene buys big packages of dried fruit and nuts and fills zip-lock bags, which she hands out to those holding signs at stop lights. And charitable organizations working for the homeless depend on donations of time and money.
Homelessness in America today is local, regional, nation-wide, and always a personal anguish that must never be considered normal.