Homelessness is a growing epidemic in the United States. Although there have always been homeless people, the number of those sleeping on the streets made a sharp increase towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In fact, “…by the late 1980’s [the number of homeless] had swollen to 600,000 on any given night – and 1.2 million over the course of a year.”
This is mainly because Reagan made deep and brutal cuts to welfare, low-cost housing, and other social programs utilized by the poor to keep themselves off the streets.
In 1980, Reagan also ended funding for federal community mental health centers. It is true that many psychiatric hospitals were dangerous and inhospitable places; however, reform (and a continuation of funding) would have far better served those who were forced onto the streets by Reagan’s budget cuts. Indeed, 20 to 25% of our homeless population is mentally ill.
Now, we can’t lay the entire blame for our current homelessness epidemic at Reagan’s feet. Homelessness will always be a problem, so long as basic needs like shelter, food, toiletries, and health care come with a price tag. Perhaps someday in the (very) distant future, there will be an end to homelessness. Unfortunately, the current reality is that there are an estimated 500,000 homeless people in the USA that urgently need our help.
So how can you help? Well, the easiest answer is: give, when you can.
If you already give to the homeless, but refuse to give money out of fear that it will be spent on drugs or alcohol, I ask you to reconsider. Dietary restrictions don’t go away when you become homeless; you can still be diabetic, have Crohn’s, IBS, etc. Furthermore, humans have other basic needs. Money can go towards toiletries, feminine hygiene products, a night in a motel or pay-shelter, warmer clothing, and countless other necessities.
And if you want to give but just can’t, that’s OK. There are many other ways you can help, and I don’t just mean volunteering at soup kitchens or donating old clothes.
You can vote in your local elections, and stop callous policies from being enacted, like bans on panhandling or make it illegal to hand out food to the homeless. Protest hostile architecture that leave the homeless with nowhere to sleep when shelters are full.
At the very least, please take a moment to make eye contact, and ask them how they’re doing. I understand that this is tough; I still struggle with it myself. It is hard to have to look someone less fortunate in the eye and tell them sorry, but you have nothing to give. It’s worth noting that research has shown that it’s not just guilt that makes some of us look away; some people view the homeless as though they’re not even human.
So, please: say hello. Be the one person today that shows some compassion, and acknowledges their humanity. Even if you don’t have money to give, at least you’ve given them some respect and kindness.