After Gov. Bob Graham of Florida spent the day and night at a shelter for the homeless in Miami, his comment was both moving and simple: "It's important to appreciate these men."
Among most American politicians, and even much of the public, that is about as far from the prevailing view as anyone can get. What is to be appreciated, it is asked, in the winos, drifters, bums, sickos and others in the invisible population who get stuck with these derisive labels that push them further into the margins? Gov. Graham, through the simple compassion of serving meals to the hungry and spending the night with them, gave the only answer possible: their humanity.
At Camillus House, the hostel for the outcast poor visited by the governor, the director is Brother Paul Johnson. He is a member of the Brothers of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic order that runs similar shelters in seven American and Canadian cities. Graham's concern offers a sharp contrast, says Johnson: "We've had trouble with the city politicians. They feel we are attracting the 'undesirables' to Miami. They seem to want only the wealthy to migrate for the winter, not the poor."
For those at the top -- governors, mayors, budget officers -- the needs and rights of those at the bottom are usually given the lowest priority, if even that is rated. If the homeless come to the attention of the powerful, it is usually when one part of the structure accuses another part of not doing its job.
In New York last week, Gov. Hugh Carey said that "the single greatest cause of increased numbers of homeless" in New York City is the tax policy by which owners of single-room-occupancy hotels receive tax breaks when the buildings are converted to luxury residences. With less and less housing, the dislocated poor are pushed onto the streets.
Defending themselves, city officials blame state officials for their past policies of "deinstitutionalization." Too many mental patients have been irresponsibly released from the state's psychiatric centers, it was charged.
The argument, in the combative style of New York political wrangling, is likely to endure through the winter. Then, with warm weather on hand and the "emergency" of homelessness past, the issue will again be forgotten. For the destitute, one of the severities of their suffering is to realize that the rest of society preceives their wretchedness in seasonal terms.
This myth was shattered by Judge Thomas a. Flannery of the U.S. District Court in Washington. In a ruling issued last May -- the month of sun and flowers when the homeless are supposed to get even further out of sight -- Flannery said the city could not close its two shelters, whatever the weather, without giving the poor a chance to be heard: "It is difficult to imagine a situation involving more egregious irreparable injury. The shelters provide indigents with housing, food and sanitation. Their discontinuance would deprive [the poor] of these life-support services.Without the shelters, these people will revert to alleys, heating grates and garbage bins."
In trying to close the shelters, city officials advanced the "budget crisis" argument, much favored of late by Mayor Marion Barry. Here again, Judge Flannery cut through the fog: "If forced to leave the shelters [many of the indigent] would resettle at D.C. General Hospital, St. Elizabeths and the D.C. jail. It is more costly to maintain persons at these facilities than at the shelters."
To his credit, Barry announced a few days ago that some of the city's buildings would be opened on cold nights for the homeless. Already eight citizens have suffered exposure deaths. Instead of going on from there to set the example for churches and the federal government, the mayor opened only one building -- as if the city is that small, its public buildings that few and public floor space too precious for the destitute. Barry then toured the heat grates, telling the media that he offered aid but that most the men on top of the grates don't want to come in from the cold. Thus, it is concluded, the city can do only so much.
This has become a fashionable argument, except that the citizens dying every winter are not the heat-grate people. Many of the frozen are found in abandoned buildings or alleys. Perhaps this group didn't want official charity either, which many of the comfortable would like to think. But how is anyone to know so long as public doors are bolted in nearly all city neighborhoods? Even then, that isn't charity. It's an offering only of raw survival.