Wallace Baine: As we look at the problem of Santa Cruz’s unhoused, Dr. King’s words are prescient as ever
On this MLK Day weekend, it’s worth pondering that Dr. King’s example, though fundamentally rooted in the experience of being Black in America, goes beyond race and racial justice. It’s a bigger container than that.
For a couple of weeks, in the chilly spring of 1987, my only home was an ice blue ’79 Subaru station wagon, with an environmentally fashionable “Love Your Mother” bumper sticker, parked on a dead-end street between the 101 freeway and the campus of Humboldt State University.
A few years before that, while I was still in college, I got evicted from my apartment for doing something stupid and, for a month or more, by the grace of a professor I’ll never forget, I slept each night in a beanbag chair in a classroom building on campus, which worked fine as long as I was out by the time the janitors made their 7 a.m. rounds.
Both of those experiences were harrowing and humiliating — and deeply, deeply lonely — but today, I would never tell someone that I used to be homeless. In each case, I had resources. I just refused to use them. I came from an intact, affluent, loving middle-class family.
If my parents had been aware of my circumstances (they most definitely were not), they would have been outraged and appalled, but they would have seen to it that I was in a better place by sundown. I certainly didn’t want to be on the streets with no place to go, but I didn’t want to deal with my folks, either. It was no fun, and it was no adventure. If either situation had gone on any longer than it did, I would have no doubt gone running to Mom and Dad.
In 2022, especially in Santa Cruz County, California, everyone — whether you’re living under a tarp on the river levee, a $3 million jewel box in Capitola, or any circumstance in between — is sick and tired of hearing about homelessness. The dominant chronic social problem of our times has, it seems, no end and no beginning. It stretches back into the past for as long as many of us can remember, and it promises to stretch just as far into an unforeseeable future.
It’s not that homelessness doesn’t have solutions. It does. They just happen to be unacceptable ones: namely, an expensive, long-term and likely massive commitment to high-density housing in neighborhoods not built for it and where most people simply don’t want it, or some kind of cruel and unthinkable forced ouster of people to make them some other community’s burden. The former would degrade our living conditions, the latter our humanity.
So, as a kind of stalemate measure, we live in Option Three: piecemeal action, whack-a-mole mobilization, finger-pointing, toleration, chronic discontent from all sides. Our very own political “Waiting for Godot.”
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Discussing homelessness has become an impossibly thorny business that has forced many of us to withdraw into silence and complacency. It’s way too easy to self-righteously question someone’s motives or social position rather than their argument or their ideas.
Think of where we might get to if we could acknowledge two simple truths: First, insisting that people who are unhoused are worthy of dignity and endowed with the same rights and desires as everyone else does not necessarily make you a preachy hypocrite, no matter how much you repeat it (and it continues to bear repeating). And second, speaking up for the integrity of community shared spaces and the public sphere doesn’t necessarily make you a callous or selfish monster.
It’s impossible to generalize about homelessness. There is no one kind of person who is prone to it, or completely immune to it. It includes every age, gender, background.
While we’re at it, let’s internalize this third truth: It’s impossible to generalize about homelessness. There is no one kind of person who is prone to it, or completely immune to it. It includes every age, gender, background. Whatever kernel of truth that once existed in the stereotype has disappeared.
Some among the homeless have been in the past, or are in the present, struggling with alcoholism, addiction, or mental illness. Yet, no matter their struggles and back stories, all people should be afforded compassion and understanding.
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The moral valence that we continue to apply to this issue — whether or not someone “deserves” to be without a safe and comfortable home — only gets in the way. On this MLK Day weekend, it’s worth pondering that Dr. King’s example, though fundamentally rooted in the experience of being Black in America, goes beyond race and racial justice. It’s a bigger container than that.
It’s about compassion to fellow humans, particularly to those outside your sphere of common background or circumstance. In his place and time, maybe King didn’t face homelessness as we’ve come to see it in contemporary California. But his ideas about compassion remind us that, at its most basic level, homelessness isn’t even about housing.
True compassion is more than throwing a coin to a beggar. It demands of our humanity that if we live in a society that produces beggars, we are morally commanded to restructure that society.
— Martin Luther King Jr.
True compassion, he said, in the now-outdated language of his era, “is more than throwing a coin to a beggar. It demands of our humanity that if we live in a society that produces beggars, we are morally commanded to restructure that society.”
Maybe restructuring society seems like the kind of heavy lifting that, politically speaking, we don’t seem capable of doing these days. Maybe that belongs on the long-term bucket list.
But my thankfully brief but illuminating experience of being without a place to live has ensured that a sense of empathy will be with me always. And it also reminds me that being homeless should not be a prerequisite for that kind of empathy. It’s there in us all, if we have courage to look for it.