The Plight of the Homeless as Winter Approaches

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The Plight of the Homeless as Winter Approaches

This year, it seems like we went right from summer into winter.

One day it was 80 degrees outside, and the next day, the high was something like 60.

For the most fortunate among us, it’s just an annoyance – having to turn on a space heater or furnace, or put on a sweater to try to stave off paying those big heating bills to make your whole house warm and toasty.

But for others, it’s a matter of life and death.

Homelessness is an epidemic in this country. Even in places further south that are warmer, homeless people face all sorts of dangers – but north of the Mason-Dixon line, they also face the very real threat of hypothermia and frostbite, and even freezing to death.

That’s in addition to the challenge of finding food when the ecosystem turns cold, and all of the gardens are frosted over.

Family farmers understand the year’s survival cycle much better than the average person. They see first-hand how at the end of the harvest season, there is an abrupt change – a shutting down of the free systems that Mother Earth gives us to grow food – and a reliance on more outside help. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania we have a tradition of canning or freezing or preserving our fresh farm foods for the winter. But of course, the homeless can’t do that. And in most cases, no one’s doing it for them.

To those without a nice warm house, a stockpile of food and money in the bank, winter is an inhospitable demon, threatening their lives, and causing all sorts of health conditions brought on by living in extreme climates outdoors.

In Lancaster County Pennsylvania, homelessness is affecting a few hundred people at any given time. Some of them are housed at the Water Street Rescue Mission in the south end of the city, or in other designated shelters. Others are in what’s called the “soft cycle” of homelessness – they’re sleeping on a friend’s couch or under the roof of a somewhat estranged family member, because somebody had enough compassion to bring them in out of the cold. Some homeless end up committing crimes just to be incarcerated, where it’s warm and the food comes from the kitchen three times a day. Also, a large number of homeless women have taken on unwanted sexual partners or turned to prostitution to avoid sleeping in the streets. Many of them would argue that it’s not really a choice – it’s a necessity.

So what can we do about homelessness?

First, people can partner with churches, groups and institutions to help. The problem is, there just aren’t enough “big non-profits” involved and we’re not really making a dent in the problem of homelessness with a system that includes so very many ways for individuals to slip through the cracks!

Then there’s the direct approach – while many of us were taught from little on up that we should never give actual money to homeless people, this anti-altruistic idea is actually rooted in prejudice and oversimplification, and really a form of ignorance.

People who understand that we are all in this together are more likely to hand a homeless person a dollar or two. People with empathy put themselves in someone else’s shoes and realize that it’s unlikely that homeless people, especially in winter months, are trying to “game the system” – that it’s much more likely they are resourceful individuals who have had a bad turn in life. When you really think about it, any kind of help makes sense – because if you were in that situation, that’s what you would want someone to do for you!

The third way is to join with coalitions of people who understand the need for compassion and logical thinking about communities. That includes our family farm efforts at GTKYF Foundation Inc and our networks of people who understand that there are natural solutions to many of the world’s problems – but that these solutions are fought against and held back by a corporate oligarchy and a government beholden to special interests.

That third way is another real way to fight homelessness, and poverty, and hunger – put public policy first. Demand that family farmers and small businesses get real relief from a compassionate government. Demand that the weakest among us be considered full citizens, and have the support of a compassionate government. Don’t fall for the shibboleths of powerful voices that suggest corporate hegemony and a gutted social system are the way to go. That’s shortsighted, misguided and illogical thinking driven by a cultural perspective that’s outdated and pretty feebleminded. Get real – and work with real people to make your community a better place to live!

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