AS THE HOLIDAY weekend comes to a close, and you settle in, perhaps, for a day of football and turkey sandwiches, thousands of other people will be moving through towns and cities looking for food, shelter and a job. Just about a year ago, President Reagan suggested that people who weren't happy with the high unemployment rates in their home towns should "vote with their feet." Since that time, many jobless workers have found they have no other choice.
These people have used up whatever unemployment benefits or savings they had, been evicted from their apartments or sold their homes for whatever they could get. They've said goodbye to their friends and relatives, left behind all those familiar landmarks -- schools, churches, bowling alleys, shops, bars and meeting places -- that make a community home. Now they're living in cars, trailers, tents or cardboard huts. They move around the country searching for something they're not likely to find -- a well-paid job that can be done by a man with few skills and a lot of pride.
Not many communities have welcomed them with open arms. Even in the flourishing Sunbelt, jobs have become hard to find. The tradition of community responsibility for the destitute is also less firmly rooted in the fast-growing cities of the South and West, which, even in good times, are used to warding off drifters in search of sunny climes. Public shelters are almost nonexistent, privately run missions and soup kitchens are overflowing.
In Phoenix, for example, local ordinances make it a misdemeanor to sleep in a public place or pick through garbage. Urban renewal efforts have closed down all the private shelters, flophouses and other refuges in the downtown area. These laws weren't aimed at the new group of homeless. They were meant to discourage the hundreds of alcoholics, drug addicts and refugees from mental institutions who frequented the downtown area even when times were good. Now, as the number of homeless has swelled into the several thousands, the city has designated a "neutral zone" in which the destitute can camp out. It has also allowed a private charity -- which already provides job-finding and other help for transient families -- to raise money for an emergency shelter.
In other localities, the only help for transients is free gas and auto repairs, provided in the hope that the homeless will keep moving. Here and there, the quality of mercy is strained to the breaking point. A Fort Lauderdale councilman, for example, suggested some months ago that local businesses spray their dumpsters with kerosene so that hungry people would quit foraging. Perhaps he got the idea from the Californian's Depression-era method of discouraging the Okies by squirting surplus oranges with kerosene and dumping potatoes in the rivers. Happily, other city officials were not interested.
It's impossible to know how many of the jobless have been forced out onto the nation's streets and highways. They don't line up to be counted, and many are too proud even to ask for help. But there is ample evidence that their number is large and growing. The shame of it is not contingent on their numbers. It is enough that more people daily are being reduced to such a life in our prosperous country. There is, as John Steinbeck once wrote, a failure here that topples all our success.