The Evolution of Homelessness–Monday Meanderings

In my lifetime the issue of homelessness has evolved. When I was a student nurse, back in the early 60’s, I spent 3 months doing a psychiatric nursing rotation at Patton State Hospital in San Bernadino, California. In a sense, the noun “hospital” is a misnomer. It was a small, self-sustaining city, populated by over 5000 patients in need of mental health care.

Photo: Alex Wellerstein

Photo: Alex Wellerstein

There were locked wards that cared for severely psychotic patients and another populated by California’s sex criminals. But many of the units cared for people who simply could not function in society. The diagnosis “simple schizophrenia” gave the State justification for their care.

Not long after, the government budget cuts(in the USA) prompted the decentralization of mental health care in all but those most significantly impaired. Nationwide, masses of these persons were released to the care of families and outpatient care centers or geriatric facilities. In the years to come, multitudes of these persons became the homeless.

Add to this demographic, veterans of the Vietnam war and all those from subsequent, mostly unpopular conflicts, the growing prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, often as a result of undiagnosed and/or untreated PTSD, coupled with a succession of economic downturns and here we are: face-to-face with thousands of persons who live on the streets and in an inadequate number of homeless shelters.

Though I am not prone to political activism and tend toward conservatism in many areas, I do believe in the power of the pen and our ability as poets to heighten public awareness. This must be a concern for everyone. Any one of us could, due to circumstances we can’t predict, join the ranks of the homeless.

This morning, I read a thought-provoking poem shared by poet Joe Hesch on The Bardo Group’s blog that deals with the problem of homelessness. Please consider stopping by to read it. It brought to mind a poem I wrote quite a while back that I would like to share with you here.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Homeless Man

Walking down the road I saw a man in tattered clothes.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had led to his defeat.
Tell me, if you would, about this life that you have chosen,
or did it dare choose you to live like this, upon the street?

I handed him a buck or two and said, Here, take a seat.
It was a rusted old park bench on which we hunkered down to meet.
You’re curious, my boy, he said, why do you want to know?
I want to understand you, sir, to see what makes you so.

That money that I gave to you, I know you’ll give to others.
I wonder, how do you survive while giving to your brothers?
A smile broke across the wrinkled landscape of his face,
the pain I’d seen inside his eyes seemed suddenly erased.

You may not really want to hear the story I will tell,
it happened many years ago in a place not far from hell.
The name you’ve heard—‘twas Auschwitz, a camp they took us Jews
the horrors that surrounded me tempted me to choose

to take my own life ere they could subject me to a death
without the grace of dignity. I was so eager to go.
But then some words came tumbling from the darkness of my mind
Words spoken by a holy man I heard in years behind.

The teacher’s voice was strong; it traveled straight into the core
of all I understand of God, of what we’re living for.
Do you know how much good can be done in Auschwitz late at night?
How hope can be a gift to those who tremble in their fright?

And what I learned back then—the truths that saved me from despair—
I carry them within my soul, there’s so much need to care.
So I refuse to see my life as a symbol of defeat.
Do you know how much good, my son, awaits me in that street?

The old man stood and shook my hand and left me with his smile
I sat, transfixed, upon that bench for quite a little while.
Now I withhold my judgment when I see a homeless guy
and wonder still at wealth within that money cannot buy.

Please share your own experiences with the homeless. Those of you from other countries, how big a problem is this for you? What is being done to deal with it? Then, reflect within yourself if there is anything you can do to help.

Have a blessed week.

Disclaimer: the facts in this article are based on my own memories so there could be misperceptions. I don’t believe these (if there are any errors) undermine the seriousness of the issue and our responsibility toward the homeless.

9 thoughts on “The Evolution of Homelessness–Monday Meanderings

  1. markwindham says:

    always at the edge of our vision if we dare to look in that direction. Written a few on the subject. Here is one.


  2. brian miller says:

    when i lived in baltimore i spent quite a bit of time with the homeless…i used to get dollar burgers and go sit with them at lunch…sharing…hearing their stories…i went tot he shelters….spoke/listened/cooked…even here in VA i cook occassionally….some seasons every week…it keeps me humble…we are one step away most of life arent we….


  3. Oh this is very pertinent today. I was in town this morning in the affluent Cotswolds and saw a young man huddled in a blanket sitting on the pavement. He looked like a teenager but so thin and deathly pale that I stopped to see if he was ill. He said he was homeless now in a stuttering nervous voice. I got the distinct impression that he had some level of learning difficulties and was very recently made homeless. he seemed almost traumatised and in shock. I offered to get him food or drink but he shook his heads sadly. So I did what we are not supposed to do and gave him some money. He didn’t look or sound alcoholic or drugged~ just defeated by a life he could not handle.
    There are always homeless people in town but just occasionally one seems totally out of place and today it was this young man. He must be someone’s son, brother, cousin, grandchild! Do they not know or care where he is and how he is? I wish I could have taken him home with me and cared for him ~ but my current life makes that impossible. There is a great need for another homeless shelter in this town.


  4. Thought provoking and powerful. I find myself sitting with this for a while. When I lived in the UK a hospital for mental health patients was closed down and they were also left to roam the streets. One of the most heartbreaking moments I experienced was one winter when I witnessed someone going around checking the pulse of those huddled in doorways to make sure they were still alive.


    • Wow, Kathryn, that is heavy. We lost a homeless man to freezing temperatures this year. It seems he was well-known and his funeral was attended by many. Although I wonder if anyone really knew his story. The police had brought him extra blankets the night before. So sad.


  5. About a decade ago I directed family services for a large homeless services organization. What I learned from that experience is that homelessness is an immensely complex problem. I also discovered the sordid underbelly of our culture. Ideology so often trumps discernment or compassion.


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