When our downtown Starbucks closed recently, I couldn’t stop thinking it had something to do with the presence of too many people who literally had no place else to go. Two years ago, I could drop in for a bitter cup, read the local Weekly, check my phone, and ignore the occasional clutter of a lost soul hanging out with all of his or her earthly belongings in a duffle bag.
Over time, more of the forgotten unsheltered seemed to have gathered there, possibly because the location of the property is so central—next to the bus depot, the new library, and busy eateries, and not far from a plaza with food trucks and live music. Starbuck’s tolerant policies meant that, for the price of one cup of coffee, you could sit for hours, get out of the rain or cold, take a sink bath, and meet up with buddies. You could even recharge your cell phone or laptop if you had one. It also meant that several times a day, the baristas would have to go in and detoxify the restrooms using germicidal sprays. To their credit, they never seemed to complain, even though what they found was sometimes disgusting, one of them admitted to me as I waited for her to finish and thanked her for her service.
Despite certain noble efforts aimed at training, jobs, housing, drug intervention, and mental health counseling, the number of unhoused has remained a constant in the U.S. According to Andrew Van Dam in The Washington Post, “more than 550,000 Americans experience homelessness on a typical night, and 1.4 million will spend some time in a shelter in a given year” (The surprising holes in our knowledge of America’s homeless population; September 17, 2019). The number of people without permanent shelter has gone up in California, Oregon, and Washington, but down in many other places. In light of climate migration, the growing cost of real estate, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the tight job market, how could the numbers not eventually increase?
Seems to me we need to rethink the situation. The presence of hundreds of thousands of people without enough food, clothing, work, and shelter in this country is an indictment of our society in too many ways to count, a society based on competition, appearances, wealth, educational levels, age, and, sadly, the color of one’s skin. If you don’t have a place to live, clean clothes to wear, a network of references, the favored genes, or a polished resume, you have little chance of finding work, even in a junkyard. (The latter business I personally believe will be more important in the years to come in a no-waste era of diminishing resources and abandoned fossil fuels.)
It’s clear to me, the government needs to create and pay for off-market industries in needed but otherwise traditionally unprofitable activities. For starters, the less-abled could work in advanced recycling (e.g., “junkyards”), forest management, seasonal harvesting, community gardening, park and coastal cleanup, animal control, mass transit, and small appliance, bicycle, and furniture repair. The better-abled could be part of infrastructure rebuilding, seawall construction, pollution monitoring, food inspection, and cyber-security.
At the same time, we need to build rooms and facilities for these folks, our fellow human beings, maybe with the help of the military, even if it costs millions of dollars, and offer them free services such as dental, medical, drug treatment, and counseling until they can support themselves. Some of the unhoused, I hear, resist “domestication,” deny they need help, and cherish their lives as vagabonds. I wonder how many truly want that, apart from a few weeks in the summer. Even if a small percentage makes it off the streets and into clean and productive lives, we will have risen to the occasion with compassion and humanity.
is author of the poetry collection Across My Silence (World Audience, Inc.,
2007). His poetry, flash fiction, essays, and mini-plays have appeared in dozens
of publications, including bosque, Bryant Literary Review, Connecticut River
Review, North American Review, Rattle, Santa Fe Literary Review, Slab, Slant,
The Briar Cliff Review, The MacGuffin, The Main Street Rag, and The South
Dakota Review, to name a few.
Awards include Grand Prize Winner in Crosswinds Poetry Journal’s
2016 poetry contest, and the poem was published in the Spring 2017 issue.
Cooper’s poetry has also been selected for Ted Kooser’s “American
Life in Poetry” and Tweetspeak Poetry’s “Every Day
Poems,” and his work has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize.
His play, That Perfect Moment (with co-writer Charles Bartlett), was a
headliner at the NOHO Arts Center in North Hollywood and The Little Victory
in the 2009-10 seasons.
A Contributing Editor here at MacQ, Cooper also served as Co-editor of MacQ’s
“big sister” journal,
Flash (Issues 5 thru 12, from 2016 through Summer 2019).