I was watching a documentary about the great flood at Johnstown, PA, in 1889. The dam had been built by the city, but was bought by a fishing and hunting club that counted many of Pittsburgh's most important people as members, like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, and Philander Knox.
Under its ownership, the dam was not only neglected but lowered to create a nice carriage road for the members to ride upon. They saw the dam as their plaything, and when a huge rainstorm hit on May 31, it burst. In the ensuing catastrophe, 2,209 people died.
I think of those wealthy members of the entitled class when I read about the reactions of some Magnolia neighbors to their opportunity to do the right thing for the homeless ["Fort Lawton neighbors strike deal for housing," June 25-July 1].
"Why do we owe these people... who haven't contributed anything... free housing?" one man asked. Nearly 25 percent of those living in low-income housing have been driven to penury by catastrophic medical bills and the inability to work. What on earth would make one think he is immune to cancer, MS, or other forms of debilitating disease? And what a baby step it would be from an unpayable hospital bill to the street.
We should also look at wages -- yes, many homeless people work. Full-time work at minimum wage currently garners thousands less than the poverty line. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of those workers are not teenagers: 72 percent are age 20 or older. Taxes are taken out of these paychecks. Not everyone gets all of it back. This makes them taxpayers.
The refugees of New Orleans, the refugees of Iowa, the victims of the subprime mortgage scammers: the question isn't whether or not they are worthy, but what sort of society we live in. Do we take care of the feeble or throw them to the wolves?
There are a lot of assumptions about the homeless: That they are all drug addicts, criminals, and worse. The neighbors want only those with no criminal record. But when it is a criminal act to try and survive outside in public, how can a homeless person show no record of criminal activity? To top it off, the neighborhood will only accept that portion of the homeless with good credit: someone whose credit report shows less than two late payments in two years. No evictions, either. What do they think causes homelessness?
This is a fundamentally anti-American attitude. I'm a Seminole, and it makes little sense to me. The military, one of this nation's chief landowners after Europeans' arrival (we don't call it the conquest because we Seminoles were never conquered), is giving up a portion of its land. Federal law sets homeless people toward the front of the line in benefiting from the land's next use. Yet neighbors want people like them to move in. The homeless, to enter Magnolia, must also be blameless.
The city Office of Housing has been an accomplice to neighborhood fears. The agreement it's drawn up to guide housing in Fort Lawton states that the children of families who live there will have no priority in admission to the neighborhood schools -- as if do-gooders were quietly scheming to steal the school desks out from under Magnolia's "regular" kids and give them to the less privileged. Such language does nothing to counter fearful mistruths.
I have a dream about how it could be. Fort Lawton should be nearly all given over to house the homeless. The barracks would make nice little apartments, while the mess hall could be used by groups like Food not Bombs and the Church Council to feed them, and WorkSource could set up an office for job training for the able bodied, with computers, telephones and sympathetic workers. Heck, why not their own school, where they could get a better education than the neighbors' kids?
And how about car campers? Fort Lawton's open space could be devoted to something like the KOA. And other sites could be donated in King County. Sites would be operated by a nonprofit whose mission would be to allow homeless people to camp in tents, cars, or RVs, with a central office equipped with phones and mailboxes. They would need showers, a laundry facility, cooking sites, and a meeting hall for community meetings. Unfortunately, they would also need neighbors who were not so selfish as to prefer others to die of exposure rather than live nearby.
The only way to make this dream come true is for all of us voters to unite, and take the government into our own hands. It sure isn't working to leave it to the professionals. We need candidates who care about all the people. And enough voters with the guts to vote for them.