There are two worlds in the United States these days, and they've been existing separately — often side by side and in plain sight of each other — for a long time.
You could say that the two worlds are at war with each other, and yet most of the inhabitants of one of these worlds are blissfully — and willfully — unaware of the existence of the other side. This divide between the inhabitants of these two separate but unequal countries-within-a-country is far greater than the perceived divisions between the right and left wings today.
For all their marked cultural and geographic differences, liberals and conservatives still live on the same planet, drink the same water and eat the same food, more or less. They use the same currency, speak the same languages and often inhabit the same social spaces, schools, movie theaters, sports arenas, polling booths and neighborhoods.
But a person can quickly disappear from public view, even while continuing to walk the same streets as everybody else, because of something more damning than politics or fashion or some other cultural difference.
All it takes is a whole lot of nothing. A loss of a job. A sudden illness without health insurance. The absence of friends or family. A traumatic accident or attack. A lack of money and a safe place to live.
One hates to use the word "homeless" to define anybody, because the moment that somebody is labeled as homeless, the attention of the other people around them subtly shifts away, and that person virtually vanishes from the world we all live in. That disappearance can be sudden or it can take place in phases over years, but once it occurs, it can be final and fatal.
What does it mean to be homeless? Not all homeless people live on the street, masking a problem that has already reached enormous proportions. Since the various levels of government (city, county, state, federal) have failed to provide housing and jobs for so many and for so long, it often ends up being the responsibility of charities and religious organizations, which also have been unable to do much collectively to turn the rising tide. Some homeless people today stay with family or on the couches of friends. Some are lucky enough to have cars they can live in. Many homeless people have jobs, or even multiple jobs, and yet they still can't make enough money to find housing.
The quaint stereotype of the homeless person as a grizzled wino who chooses to drink all day and be lazy is quickly becoming a mythical cliché of the past. Of course, living on the streets is a job in itself, from finding safe food, water and restrooms to avoiding predation and assaults from both criminals and the police. Try panhandling all day at a busy intersection or freeway offramp and discover how much hard work — and public humiliation — is required.
Imagine living in the wealthiest country with the most resources in the history of this planet. Imagine living there, though, with no real safety net, as politicians from both parties over the past few decades have pilfered from and torn apart the basic protections that used to give the poor and the middle class something resembling an even footing with the rich. There was a time when many places, such as Santa Monica, had only a few dozen homeless people. But these numbers swelled into the thousands virtually overnight along the city's streets and cliffs when President Reagan's policies in the mid-1980s, including the federal defunding of mental hospitals, led to a mass expulsion of patients who were forced to live on the streets.
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But even that sudden rise in homelessness in major U.S. cities in the '80s pales in comparison with the explosion of thousands of newly homeless people who are attempting to survive on the streets in most cities and towns across the country today. Los Angeles' Mayor Eric Garcetti boldly bragged that he was going to solve the problem of homelessness in this city before the end of his term. But instead of building or finding more housing for veterans and other victims of this supposedly thriving economy, Garcetti has chosen to make their lives even more difficult by criminalizing their behavior and taking advantage of their vulnerability at a time when they need help the most. Not only has Garcetti allowed the LAPD to step up its destruction of homeless camps and property but he also has permitted changes in zoning, making it a criminal offense for homeless citizens to park overnight in cars in many residential neighborhoods.
Garcetti isn't the first canny politician to talk airily about helping the homeless while simultaneously punishing them for sleeping on the streets and not having anywhere else to go. The political heir clearly recognizes that although homeless people are also citizens of this city, they don't have the same political clout as the businesses and developers that are boldly gentrifying neighborhoods across Los Angeles, with many longtime residents and tenants now finding themselves joining the ranks of the homeless. Garcetti's pragmatic choice of favoring business interests at the expense of real human beings might help fill his coffers in the short term and perhaps even vault him into higher office one day, but it also permanently cements his legacy as the father of a thousand new Hoovervilles, which really should be redubbed Garcettivilles, which likely will pock this city's landscape long after the mayor has fled for greener pastures.
The problem is so overwhelming, so seemingly impossible to fix, that do-gooders and go-getters simply give up and look away. It's easier to glance away than to look deeply in the eyes of a person begging for food or money. At most, people give the homeless person a few bucks and then quickly walk away before they are required to do even more — like care, or learn the person's name or backstory, or imagine being in their ragged shoes. The streets of downtown Los Angeles are livelier now, filled with a greater mix of people than ever before in most of our lifetimes, and yet half of its current population might as well be living on the other side of thick glass walls like shell-shocked animals in a public zoo. But the homeless never changed their humanity; it's most of the rest of us who changed and allowed it happen.