Broken communities

Day 28–July 31, 2009

There are many ways a person can be homeless; staying with family or friends; living in transitional housing or shelters; or simply getting by on the street, in cars, or in tents.

Regardless, homelessness is the result of a breakdown in community. For those with a supportive network of family and friends–a network that takes care of one another, there should be no need for anyone to be living on the street or in a shelter. If I fall, I know I will have someone to catch me and give me a hand until I can stand on my own. But for millions of Americans such a support network does not exist. When they fall, their network of family and friends cannot pick them up as they too have fallen.

After I graduated from college, before I got my first job as a reporter, I worked at JCPenney. I earned so little money that I got back all the state and federal taxes that had been deducted from my paycheck. Had I not lived in an apartment owned by my grandmother, at dramatically reduced rent, there is no way I could have afforded housing short of moving back home with my parents. But many people do not have this option. If your parents and grandparents are barely making ends meet, they will not be able to lend a hand.

Just as wealth is passed from one generation to another, the inability of one generation to give the next a lift up can pass poverty down generation after generation. By guaranteeing that everyone has a roof over his or her head, we can break out of the cycle of poverty.

To find the solutions, we need only look to our own neighborhoods. Before I set out on this trip I spoke with Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about the many challenges facing those who advocate for the homeless. She told me the problems and solutions can be found within our own communities. Yes, economic decisions at the federal level have an impact, but decisions that determine quality of life are made by our friends and neighbors.

It is the neighbors who cry NIMBY when attempts are made to build affordable homes. It is the citizens who argue against tax increases to fund public transportation, health and human services, all-day kindergarten or other services that benefit the poor.

While I was a reporter in Kent, Ct., there was a bitter fight to bring just a few units of affordable housing to the town. Though the proposal eventually passed I was intensely angry at those who had opposed building affordable housing and suggested it would bring “undesirables” to the town. What they didn’t realize (or perhaps maybe they did) was that those “undesirables” were their firefighters, teachers, small business owners and dozens of others who made the town run, people like me.

Most people understand schools, roads, parks, trash collection and a multitude of other services cost money. Similarly it is accepted that if we do not pay for such services we will live in a world where there is no need to worry about how a firetruck will get around a pile of uncollected garbage on an unplowed road to put out a fire at your house, because there will be no firetruck. But, when it comes to taking care of people, paying them enough to live, and ensuring that everyone can afford housing, we suddenly can’t understand why minimum wage is not enough to make ends meet.

So look around your community and ask yourself which of your neighbors is struggling to make ends meet. And then ask what you have done to ensure everyone can afford a home.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper