"The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick and the needy, and the handicapped." — Hubert Humphrey
I live in the heart of Hollywood, mere blocks from the start of the Hollywood Walk of Fame – 1.3 miles of star-lined sidewalks immortalizing the greatest actors, musicians, and entertainers of our time.
And populated by the homeless.
They sleep on the sidewalk, nestled between storefronts and tucked in dark corners, where they seek refuge from the scorching California sun.
As I pass them each day on my walk to the gym or the grocery store, I feel nothing but empathy. Instead of reminding myself how much I have to be thankful for, I find myself thinking only of their circumstances, their solitude, and their despair. Each one is a human life, yet this is barely living.
As Americans, we sleep easier at night when we choose to believe our homeless are losers who failed in the game of life, deserving their poverty. We even blame them, just like we honor the wealthy, whom we regard as winners.
Yet both classes have done little to deserve their status. After all, 99% of Americans will die in the same tax bracket we are born into.
Our lack of understanding breeds a lack of altruism. Those who buy into this Calvinistic view that Wealth = Winner and Poor = Loser are blind to the real socioeconomic conditions that inflict tens of millions of Americans in our growing underclass.
Conservatives push this propaganda because it serves a purpose: the less money we spend on the poor, the less taxes we have to pay. And if we convince ourselves – and the public – that the destitute deserve their fate because of personal failure, then we absolve ourselves from any moral responsibility.
The homeless don’t deserve that type of dismissal. And we don’t deserve to get off that easily.
Our homeless are not losers. They’re not outcasts. And they’re not spoiled rich kids posing as poor for conservative cameras.
They are our nation’s mentally ill, who have no family and no home. And they are in need of our assistance.
Under Ronald Reagan’s governorship in the 1960s and 1970s, California led the nation in deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill, moving them out of state-funded hospitals and into for-profit board-and-care homes. The executives of companies that provided these homes were none other than Reagan’s friends and fundraisers. The living conditions in these homes, often in crime-ridden neighborhoods, were so poor that many began to leave.
By the 1980s, this pattern had spread across the country, giving birth to our modern homeless pandemic.
The deinstitutionalized became the homeless, who in turn were either victimized on the street or incarcerated for homicides and other violent behavior, a direct result of their now-untreated psychosis. It's no wonder the crime rate skyrocketed in the 1980s.
Today, these men and women live in our privatized, for profit prison system.
The more prisoners, the more money from the government to house them, the higher shareholder returns on the publicly traded prison companies, which can earn as much as $60,000 per year, per inmate.
Thus, it pays to have the mentally ill wander our streets and commit crimes, even if it’s minor offenses like public urination, jaywalking, or smoking a joint.
It is a sad reflection of American values that we scoff at spending tax dollars to care for our mentally ill, but have no problem spending tens of thousands of dollars to lock them up and dress them in prison garb.
Imagine how much less we’d spend to dress them in civilian clothing and treat them humanely.
If there were a God, one would think he’d have the decency to birth the disabled and the destitute in a Scandinavian country, where there’s almost zero poverty, much-needed mental health resources, and the societal altruism to take care of the less fortunate. The fact that these countries have higher rates of happiness and life satisfaction than any capitalistic society is just a bonus.
Rather, our homeless are condemned to live in a country that preaches Christian values but provides no national effort to care for our most vulnerable.
The bitter irony of Reagan’s legacy is that the young man who tried to assassinate him in 1981 was an untreated schizophrenic – one who'd have been looked after by a functional mental health system in a more socially responsible country. Not coincidentally, John Lennon’s killer was also an untreated schizophrenic.
So many of these men and women on the streets of our cities are not only our mentally ill, but also our veterans. This is partly because our political leaders sell patriotism when waging war, but label post war finance as wasteful government spending, with little respect for its toll.
Our former service members waste away in the urban gutters because they came from poor backgrounds. Many enrolled in the armed forces during their invincible youth as a means to pay for college and not be strapped with student loan debt for the rest of their lives.
However, when they returned from war, they paid the real price – with disabilities, PTSD, and chronic mental health needs. Compound that with our country’s disregard for almost anyone who outgrows the 18-39 demographic, and we have our country’s greatest embarrassment in full view, in every major city in the nation.
These men and women have been discarded to live as street urchins in our public spaces, yet have become such a part of the scenery, they no longer register on our public conscience.
Hollywood Boulevard is indeed a boulevard of broken dreams, and it stetches clear across the country.
But the broken dreams are not those of struggling actors who never got their break. It’s of a broken American dream that was sold out for a tax cut and a quarterly profit. It’s of broken lives who never stood a chance. And it’s of the broken moral compass that allows tourists and locals to step over human beings without missing a beat.
And that’s what is most broken of all.
For the day we walk down the street and do not feel their pain is the day we all lose our humanity.