One of the major problems of cities with mild winter climates is the number of homeless people on the street. As social services are being curtailed, almost every large city in the United States has a major problem of dealing with the poor, the mentally ill, the long-term unemployed, the drug addicted, and others who are down and out for a variety of reasons. Where should they go? We have closed our mental hospitals, cut back on welfare programs, and generally have tried to ignore their existence. Even the jails are overcrowded. Any good-sized city has a sizable number of such people, but winter takes its toll, and people who would freeze to death in Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, New York, Buffalo, Denver, and elsewhere are like northern snowbirds everywhere: they head south if possible in order to survive.
One result is that Los Angeles has perhaps the largest homeless district in the country. Skid Row, as it is now known, spans fifty square blocks in downtown Los Angeles with a population as large as a medium-sized city. Some eleven thousand people who manage to have some money bed down each night in cheap rooms in the sixty-five single-room-occupancy hotels that were established just to house them. Thousands of others climb into bunks or crowd together in suites of formerly grand old hotels now offering a bed for a night at a lower cost than a room. Most inhabit the sidewalks and the spaces beneath the bridges spanning the Los Angeles River.
The missions run by various religious groups are sometimes the last resort and often the best place to get a free meal. Food lines are long but, by moving from one to the next, a man (and there are far more men than women) can eat five or six meals a day. Emissaries of the various religious groups motor through the streets or walk the side-walks distributing fruit, hamburgers, bottled water, T-shirts, jeans, sleeping bags, and tents. One group hands out blue tarps that can be tied to fences to keep the rain out or provide some privacy. Another group offers waterproof drawstring bags that allow a person to keep his or her meager possessions dry. Grocery stores turn over their day-old bakery products and surplus produce.
The religious groups are ever present. At least one retired priest, Maurice Chase, gives out money. Every Sunday for the past twenty or so years, Chase has brought a bag of dollar bills to the Row, which he hands out. Towards the end of each month, when welfare checks have run out, it takes two hours waiting in line to receive the dollar. The late Harold Edelstein, a bachelor who was not identified with any religious group, left about twenty million dollars to sup-port minor projects such as community coffee stands or assist the most desperate people. His giving became institutionalized in a foundation that is named after him, which is gradually giving away the money without any attempt to preserve the principal.
What strikes me as a humanist when I visit Skid Row is my feeling of helplessness. I resent that many have to listen to a sermon before getting food, yet I am convinced that, if I found myself in the same condition, I could probably rationalize listening to one if it meant a good meal. In an earlier period in my life, I would have argued that the government should take on more of the burden, and while it does to some extent, its actions are limited. Other than picking up their welfare checks, the only contact that most of the homeless have with government is with the police, who are used to prevent them from sleeping on the streets (they might get run over), urinating or having bowel movements in public areas, or encroaching beyond Skid Row into other areas of the city.
I must admit that I would not like the homeless living in my neighborhood. I also have had to admit to myself that there is little I can do as an individual, beyond passing out a few dollar bills or volunteering in a soup kitchen. But, as a humanist, I want to do more. I believe a humanist has to deal with the reality of poverty, but I have also concluded that to make any dent in the problem, one person’s efforts are not enough. We need to act as an organized movement to find housing and offer health and support to those who most need it. I am often disappointed at the hold organized religion has on the public psyche, but until we as humanists can do more to resolve the problems associated with poverty and homelessness, we will have to take a backseat to those dedicated religious who in their own narrow way are trying.
Vern Bullough is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is a noted author and researcher in human sexuality. Currently, he is adjunct professor of nursing at the University of Southern California.