If you listen to talk radio, you'll hear the message that people are poor because they make "bad choices" in life. Poverty, the hate-jocks blather, is a moral failing on the part of people without cash. Those with wealth clearly are entitled to it because they're so very, very superior in their decision-making, not because the happenstance of birth or race dumped the cash into their cribs.
The Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) would like you to believe that if everyone made the correct life "choices" -- such as electing to be born white and into affluence -- we'd have no joblessness, no poor folks, no need for welfare.
"I thought I had made the right choices," Shaw says. "I worked in collections at Sears. I worked hard. I believed in Sears."
Sears, like most of corporate America, doesn't necessarily believe in its employees. Compare Shaw with Sears CEO Alan Lacy, and you'll get the picture. Lacy, who pockets a $1 million salary, made the "choice" of having his board award $1.8 million in bonuses last year and $900,000 this year. That manna descended upon Lacy despite Sears' lackluster performance, attested to by the company's stock price falling 49 percent in 2003.
Lacy's compensation is, oh, about 150 times what Shaw earned. The difference is that Shaw actually produced results in her little corner of Sears, while Lacy's job appears to be finding ways to increase the company's disparity between the incomes of gold-collared bosses and those of blue- and white-collared serfs. Someone has to pay for Lacy's choices, and in that group of "someone" we find Shaw. She learned the meaning of "outsourcing."
"They closed down the center where I worked," Shaw says. "That created financial stress on me." Shaw and her four children became homeless.
Here's another story. Lameasia Booker grew up in Michigan. Like many African-Americans, the Big Peach represented something special: a place where being black seemed less a disadvantage than in other cities. Booker believed Atlanta was a mecca for jobs beckoning to her and her two daughters.
"No jobs," is what Booker found when she moved to Clayton County. Her meager resources ran thin, and state child welfare workers were threatening to take her kids.
"I became homeless, but that didn't mean I was a bad mom," Booker says.
I detest writing about homelessness. It's not because of the homeless themselves. People like Booker and Shaw are generally a better class of folks than, say, the organized crime syndicates that call themselves the Atlanta city government or the Georgia Assembly. My distaste is because the story never changes.
Over the years in cities where I've worked -- Miami, Tampa and Atlanta -- I've hung out with the homeless to get column material. I've volunteered in soup kitchens and in drug and alcohol recovery programs, sometimes for stories, sometimes because I figure a few good deeds will shorten my eons in Purgatory.
I've spent many days in shelters listening to the stories. Through the fog of alcohol, drugs and the more-than-occasional insanity that accompanies homelessness, I've found many uplifting stories. An old gent in Miami who had been on the streets for 30 years saved half of what he collected begging from patrons at a 7-Eleven in order to buy little Christmas gifts for kids in the surrounding, dirt-poor Little Havana neighborhood. "Hell," he once told me, "I don't even speak Spanish, but these little ones need something to cheer up their lives."
If Jesus ever does return, rather than being announced with trumpets, heavenly hosts, mighty choirs and all, he might show up masquerading as a homeless guy, handing out what little he has to children -- just to see how people treat him. If he visits Atlanta, his Second Coming welcome likely will be a one-way ticket out of town or a kick in the holy butt.
I'm certainly no saint. I'm just ashamed for this great nation and for its cities, which are so totally devoid of real charity.
My shame deepens as I've watched preachers, business leaders and civic pooh-bahs turn their heads, pinch their upturned noses and hurry past the homeless who are washed up like flotsam on our downtown streets.
The homeless issue in every city where I've lived comes down to this: The homeless gravitate to the urban center. That's a given, and it's irrevocable. The city's leaders, pushed by downtown business groups, declare that something must be done. There usually is a pious show of concern, but the real motivating factor is always -- always -- the chamber of commerce image of the city. Grand plans are discussed, but the only ongoing initiative is unadulterated repression. The police are unleashed on the homeless; the cities try to give the down-and-out folk the bum's rush.
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