Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.
One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.-
In 1967, the year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) isolated himself for a couple of months in a rented residence in Jamaica and completed the first draft of his fourth and final book that is entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. By the time he finished his book, poverty, an issue that he long railed against, was denounced forcibly once again.
When he raised the question “Where do we go from here” within the context of poverty, he was bold enough to say “let us end it.” He wrote, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age” and “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
What I find even more inspiring is what he proclaimed after he wrote, “There is nothing new about poverty.” He asserted, “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.”
My sense is that the closer MLK got to poverty, the clearer he could see an end to it. I feel his experience parallels and inspires my own experience concerning homelessness. The closer I get to it, the clearer I can see we can end it.
For more than 20 years, I have written numerous federal, state, county, and private foundation grants that have been funded after I spent six years as a case manager for homeless individuals and families. I also spent a great deal of time designing and implementing various residential and non-residential programs and projects to help solve local homelessness.
It was not until I got involved in homeless counts that it became clear to me that we could end homelessness. Homeless counts are required by jurisdictions that receive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care Program funding. I have helped many jurisdictions design and implement counts and have written many final reports that included recommendations based on the count data.
While writing up the reports for counties, I would break down the total number of unsheltered persons counted by subpopulations that included chronically homeless persons, veterans, families, youth, seniors, and others. I would then break down the total number of unsheltered persons counted countywide by cities and break down the total number of persons counted for each city by subpopulations.
For example, a county with 20 cities counted 2,000 unsheltered persons. A given city may have counted 200 unsheltered persons of which 20 were veterans, 30 were seniors, 40 were youth ages 18 – 24, and 50 were chronically homeless.
I continuously asked myself if a city had the resources to end homelessness for the 30 seniors or the 40 youth aged 18 – 24 that were counted. Asking the same question for all 2,000 unsheltered persons together seemed too daunting. Asking if a city had the resources to end homelessness for 20 veterans or 50 chronically homeless persons who were languishing on the streets did not.
Inspired by MLK, I have begun to say there is nothing new about homelessness. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to end it.
MLK wrote in his final book
“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
The resources that a city has are enough to end homelessness, beginning with one subpopulation of homeless persons such as families, and then moving to another, such as seniors and then to another, such as veterans.
Flinging a coin to a homeless family, senior, or veteran perpetuates homelessness because this “charitable” act relinquishes the collective responsibility to transform the whole Jericho Road for our neighbors who are homeless. It silences the question that needs to be asked, which is—Do we not have the resources in our city to end homelessness among families or seniors or veterans?
Flinging coins will allow us to keep a distance and leave the question unasked. Asking the question, will likely bring us closer to the homelessness experiences of others. Remember, the closer we get, the clearer we will see that there are the resources to end it, which is quite contrary to what most of us likely believe right now.