We see them almost everywhere! We can hear them around the corner, and we see their shadow from far away. We try to avoid looking directly into their eyes, and we pretend we did not hear them when they talk to us. We walk around the block to avoid them, and walk faster to leave them behind. These people that we consider to be invisible are actually homeless human beings. Homelessness in America remains an issue of deep concern in the 21st century. Without a permanent roof over their head, these people seek refuge in various places such as homeless shelters and tent cities. If they are fortunate they will find a safe place to stay the night. The less fortunate ones are forced to spend their night in public places that are unsafe and unfit to sleep in. Although homelessness is not a new issue to write about, in “Rachel and her children”, Jonathan Kozol brings us into an entirely new world.
A world where the homeless are not just figures with hands held out asking for spare change. He brings us into the lives of these homeless story by story case by case sharing his personal interviews with these unfortunate people. What Kozol describes deeply in the book throughout true incredible stories goes beyond our expectation. Especially in chapter 5,” Distancing ourselves from pain and tears” which is one of the center of the book, the author raises more concern about our attitudes toward poor homeless people. What Kozol means by “distancing” in the chapter is that people do really care about homelessness. They do understand and feel guilty about what homeless people are suffering day by day. Because of the guiltiness, they try to create a “distance” by themselves to ignore the responsibility for these homeless people.
Instead of blaming the reckless negligence of the government’s welfare system, people end up blaming homelessness for creating their own destitution. In some ways, it is surely that most Americans would have a certain enhanced sympathy toward homeless people. However, not many of us do truly care about them, want to know what the story is behind them becoming homeless, and try to help them get out of their dark side. We do have compassion, but our compassion is not big enough to connect us closer to homeless people. Even though we feel very bad whenever we hear about the poor people, every one of us does have a distance ourselves from homelessness.
The first thing that come to my mind and other people’s when thinking about homeless people is that all of them are panhandlers, those who are mentally unstable, and victims of “dumping” by greedy hospital or drug addiction. Last summer I came to visit my friend who lives in downtown San Francisco. As I was walking down to the bus station, I remember passing an old homeless woman who was asking people for money at the corner of the station. Being careful not to touch her, I dropped a few spare coins in his hand. Automatically assuming that the money I gave her would be used for drugs or alcohol, I looked upon her with contempt. After reading this book, I understand that the woman I saw at the corner of the station could have, at one time, been just like me. Even though being a little proud of just doing something good, I found that I (as well as other people) fail to create a distance from homelessness.
At the beginning, Kozol opens his book with the story of Peter and Megan who are living in the Martique homeless shelter. Before ending up being homeless, they had a happy life with their five children. Peter did plumbing and carpentry. He was also a contributing and working. After a fire destroyed the house and all of Peter’s collection of tools he had built up for years, Peter’s family had to struggle in the Martique. By opening with this story, Kozol gives the readers a new vision of homeless people. Stereotypes of the homeless as individuals struggling with mental health issues or substance addictions no longer hold. They used to be normal members in the society just like us, but for some reasons cause them to become destitute.
Kozol’s book documents how many homeless were recently employed, cast into homelessness by financial misfortune such as ongoing unemployment, staggering medical bills or medical disabilities. Many homeless people are in their existing condition of living on the streets because of being born poor, while many other homeless people used to have money, fame and property before but lost it all in some big personal or external event. We have never thought what lead those people into their dark sides. We are too hasty to put everyone into the same category. Because of that failure in thinking, we naturally build an invisible distance that separates us from homeless people.
There are hundreds of fears which could be called typical of human needs existing inside of us such as: going broke, foreclosure on house, humiliation from public speaking, running out of food, or major disasters…. However, a life that is financially is unsecure, and in a depressed economy, the fear of being homeless seems to be considered as the biggest concern for human beings. For those who have been homeless and are now off the street, generally they promise themselves never to let that happen again. Many people now fear being homeless who are close to foreclosure. Too many people bought at the top of the market or re-financed with variable rate deals. Therefore, this fear of being homeless is a real fear.
When people are scared of something so much that they cannot face it, they tend to ignore it in order to release the fear that they are going through. We all know that homelessness still exists. We also know that that the number of people who stay in the street as their home, lack of food, tremble because of cold, and carry on so many disease is increasingly higher in every states of the U.S. Since we fear of being homeless, we try to disregard the existence of homelessness. We even blame homeless people for creating their own situation. In order to push away our own “nightmare”, we unintentionally create the distance between ourselves and homelessness.
Not only do we eliminate our “nightmare” by blaming the homeless people but also we evade our responsibility by making an excuse that there is no “quick fix” for erasing homelessness in America. That means people who are living in the street have to wait a long time to get a house. Most of us usually think that we already gave a hand for helping homelessness by the tax we pay to the government every year, and that the government themselves have had programs for low-income Americans. However, we do not know that the money the government gives up to help poor people is “just over a tenth of the federal budget” (131).
Yet, that ten percent of the budget was cut into one third by the Reagan budget cuts. In other words, when that amount of money reaches to the homeless people, it means nothing. The question here is: What is the rest of the money gone instead of using to help homeless? The rest of billions of dollars is used for national defense such as: military, weapons, and so-called wars… Without knowing this, we blame homeless people for creating their own destitution instead of the government.
The book “Rachel and her children” incredibly tells stories of homeless people. Each person has his or her own different circumstances, but generally these people used to have the same normal live before they became homeless. Many of us would sympathize with homeless people on the street, but only few truly want to help them get out of their extreme circumstances. In some ways, we still draw ourselves a distance from homelessness either because of our guiltiness or our own fear of being homeless one day. When we confidently give up our little spare coins to homeless people without worrying if they are used for drugs or alcohol, that is when we little by little erase our distance and get closer to these poor homeless human beings.
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