Sunday, April 03, 2005


On Friday night, the UNC Campus Y hosted a "homelessness awareness vigil" in the Pit. Chris Moran of the IFC was there with two of his clients, homeless men. I was there representing the Town Council. The original plan for the vigil was to bring sleeping bags and sleep outside, right there in the Pit. But the threat of rain changed that. James Jolley, the student who asked me to speak, was apologetic: truly homeless people don't have that luxury, he knows.

The rain held off. More students than I might have expected showed up. A group called "Sweater Weather" played some John Lennon, we held votive candles, we spoke, we sat in silence.

After giving the better part of my stump speech on the subject, I read this passage from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye:

Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life. The threat of being outdoors surfaced frequently in those days. Every possibility of excess was curtailed with it. If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors. Sometimes mothers put their sons outdoors, and when that happened, regardless of what the son had done, all sympathy was with him. He was outdoors, and his own flesh had done it. To be put outdoors by a landlord was one thing--unfortunate, but an aspect of life over which you had no control, since you could not control your income. But to be slack enough to put oneself outdoors, or heartless enough to put one's own kin outdoors--that was criminal.

There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go. The distinction was subtle but final. Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment. Out peripheral existence, however, was something we had learned to deal with--probably because it was abstract. But the concreteness of being outdoors was another matter--like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Dead doesn't change, and outdoors is here to stay.

I was encouraged to see these college students, so many of them, really, outdoors on a damp dreary Friday night, empathetically engaged in thinking about how to tackle homelessness. But there is so much to do. The Bush Administration giveth to the homeless with one hand, but with the other it taketh away:

The cuts to HUD are guaranteed to widen the nation's already increasing economic inequality. While eliminating the HOPE VI program for 2006, the President has also requested Congress to rescind the $143 million it had already approved in the 2005 budget. HOPE VI helps agencies create mixed-income communities by replacing severly distressed public housing and also provides housing assistance for AIDS victims and the disabled. The unspoken mantra of this administration appears to be hardworking, disadvantaged citizens cannot turn to their government for assistance.

In an effort to combat critics, HUD said it would boost funding for homeless assistance to $1.4 billion. This conciliatory gesture, however, is a disservice to the fastest growing segment of the homeless population--families and children. The lack of affordable housing is the greatest cause of homelessness, yet the allocation of this money goes to warehousing people in shelters instead of placing them in more permanent housing. For countless of low-income families who spend half their income on rent, cuts in HUD will make living in previously affordable housing impossible.

A rendering of a HOPE VI project

There seemed to be so much real hope invested in our little votive candles. Where is the national political will to turn that hope into meaningful investments in solutions to this moral dilemma?

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