I remember the day the phrase “compassion fatigue” entered the popular lexicon. It was Sept. 2, 1991, and I was sitting in a meeting with a program officer from the Boston Foundation and the director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
We were looking at that day’s New York Times. Above the fold on page one was this: “Shift in Feelings on the Homeless: Empathy Turns Into Frustration.”
“Ten years after the wan face of homelessness first captured the nation’s attention,” the story began, “empathy is turning to intolerance as cities impose harsher restrictions on homeless people to reduce their visibility or force them to go out on their own.”
A summary of recent backlash followed. Atlanta, in preparation for the Goodwill Games, was arresting homeless people. In Miami, squeegee panhandlers were receiving up to 60 days in jail. The District of Columbia had repealed its “right to shelter” law and Santa Barbara banned public sleeping.
The story continued. “Advocates for the homeless and city officials alike see these as signs that attitudes are hardening toward what became a badge of social responsibility in the 1980’s when people could better afford to be magnanimous.”
“People are a bit weary,” said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York group. “They have heard all the solutions for the last 10 years, but it doesn’t seem to make a dent in the problem.”
We knew at the time that this was a turning point, but we didn’t know the half of it. Nearly 30 years later, the crisis continues to be framed in much the same terms. And the resources to address the issue are still radically insufficient.
The problem is, we live in a society that could well afford more magnanimity.
The pattern has become sickeningly familiar. The Reagan years perfected an enduring template for growing inequality. Pump up the military economy, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy and use the excuse of false scarcity to attack and immiserate the poor.
The Reagan years perfected an enduring template for growing inequality.
Today, that model holds firm. Our imperial military is once again looking toward space. Taxation is more regressive than ever, and we still blame and criminalize those who make us uncomfortable.
This past weekend, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, articulated an obvious but forbidden truth. Our problems of homelessness and low-wages point toward a deeper issue: the failure of capitalism to uphold anything resembling a social contract.
“If you have hundreds of thousands of children living in homes without enough to survive, that’s a blatant failure,” she said. “What else would you call it?”
The new prime minister has pledged to raise the minimum wage, reduce child poverty and build affordable housing. This is what real change looks like.
The good news is that the courts have started to recognize that punishing poverty is an expensive dead end. The data is in. Jailing people for poverty crime is a downward spiral that only deepens the misery.
Jailing people for poverty crime is a downward spiral that only deepens the misery.
The recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that defines criminalizing public sleeping as “cruel and unusual punishment” when the scarcity of housing and shelter offers them no choice is progress as well.
And yet, a kinder capitalism often seems distant at best. Here in Washington state, we have the most regressive tax system in the nation, and funding for things like mental health ranks near the bottom of the nation.
We have much work to do.
“How did compassion,” a recent news special asked, “get twisted into this sickening reality?”
It didn’t. The sickening reality of our streets is about a decades long abandonment of the poor and middle class. Not some perverse overabundance of caring.
The sickening reality of our streets is about a decades long abandonment of the poor and middle class.
Compassion fatigue, back in 1991 and now, is an emotional defense against an unacceptable reality.
Our confusion, it seems, is around just what is unacceptable.
Our challenge is to act. Compassion is a verb. It is empathy plus action. It is taking those very real feelings of sadness and anger and transforming them into the raw material of love and kindness.
Compassion, in this world, is a subversive act, and it’s not for wimps. Believe it.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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