We need another word for "homeless"

Dateline: Tue 02 Mar 2010

In one of the first columns I wrote for the metro/state section at the Indianapolis Star, I referred to the transformation of the near Westside from a gritty, dirty industrial wasteland with its old railroad tracks, into the home of a sparkling new zoo and White River State Park, including the beautiful butterfly gardens.

The point was the contrast between the old and the new, so the column included a mild reference to the fact that the railroad tracks had once been a sort of highway for the city's bums and hobos. This was information supplied by some local historian in a position to know; years ago, hobo camps flourished along the tracks on the near Westside.


How dare I call these homeless individuals "hobos"? Honestly, I may not even have used the word "bums" -- I cannot imagine the zealous, crack copy desk of the Star, ever P.C. vigilant, letting that one pass. Nonetheless, readers were upset over my language, and letters to the editor followed, including a piece of puffery from the head of one of the groups that received federal and city dollars in order to solve "the homeless problem."

Today's reporting on the issue -- the fact that "the homeless" have been moved out from their "camp" under the Davidson Street Bridge a block south of Washington and near Downtown and residences -- shows me that we do indeed need another word.

"Homeless" inspires rivers of pity for a population that, too often, chooses to live on the streets. The fact that these street-dwellers by choice -- help me out with a better word here? -- have now been moved will no doubt result in even more of the sort of indignant letters I received.

But the truth is: many dysfunctional and unemployed individuals prefer being out of doors and drinking (as Will Higgins' reporting showed) to staying in a shelter and/or holding down a job. The fact that these guys -- the camp of 36 are almost all male -- are aided by loving "Christians" who provide food, tents, lawn chairs, god-knows-what, only exacerbates the problem.

The mayor was right to take action. Credit goes to Richard Campi, who lives on Fletcher Avenue in an historic home and spear-headed meetings over the problem -- he is my former landlord, and I know he does not suffer injustice in his neighborhood quietly.

The enablers who get their rocks off "helping the poor" would be better off realizing that "the poor" are best aided when their dignity and inherent human worth is acknowledged -- that means getting off the booze and into mental health clinics and, yes, off the streets. The men and women who work in this area know that food and shelter are available for those who no longer have homes; they stand ready to hook them up, get them in programs, etc.

The other truth is, many street residents choose to live life, like Frank Sinatra, "their way."  They have the freedom of choice to do so, but then so does the city have the freedom (and obligation) to uproot their squalid and disruptive camp, on behalf of the larger community that lives and works in the area.

And until we can come up with a better word, "homeless" has run its goofy, gooey, "feel-good" course.




Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

Tramp. (Well, that has become exclusively a name for a slattern.)

Residentially Disadvantaged?

You may be a little hard on the well intentioned, Ruthie, who bring blankets to keep the outdoorspeople from freezing.

Then again, maybe nature just needs to run its course.

2010-03-02 07:18:44

Seneca [unverified] said:

History Channel's "Life After People" shows how "nature runs its course." Sooner or later, nature will reclaim that which was usurped by humans.

2010-03-02 08:51:45

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

It would be helpful to klnow how many of the 36-40 were truly not in full control of their faculties. If you catch my drift.

For those folks, I have tremendous empathy. I think society owes them a place to live that respects their mental status, and is safe, warm and caring.

For the others...I have a small amount of empathy, but not enough to ridicule the mayor's action.

I don't like Greg Ballard. I think he's an empty (and expanding, recently) suit. (Damn, Mayor, dial in a salad bar)

He has populated the 25th floor with goofs and recycled mumblers.

But on this action, he gets an A--lus from me.

It's not enough to cause me to vote for him next year. But it was a gutsy call.

Kudos to the neighbors and nearby businesses who stayed on this problem long enough to affect change.

I'm beting no one called the MAC to get this change--but if someone did, they got the actual mayor to answer the call! Now, about those chuckholes on Emerson...I believe one goes all the way to China...

2010-03-02 10:48:05

JL Kato [unverified] said:

Ruth, I doubt that anyone can coin an all-inclusive name for the aforementioned homeless. Some have mental conditions, some can't function in conventional society, some are addicts, and some are truly desperate.

As a child, I always had a roof over my head, but I knew the possibility of living on the streets depended on whether my family could find another sucker landlord who let us move in while we moved out before the next month's rent was due. I now realize all that moving around was a form of homelessness. I couldn't and didn't connect with the neighborhoods I lived in. I grew up witnessing the meanness and kindness of strangers.

As for the concepts of giving the homeless a fish or teaching them to fish, it's not an either/or situation. You do both. You must tend to their immediate needs (whether they want it or not) AND you take longterm steps to re-integrate into society. You're not going to be 100 percent successful, but you minimize the risk of unsanitary conditions at the camps and the fear of nearby workers and resients.

Back in the '70s, when I tried to adjust to actully holding down a steady job and staying put in one community, I refused to give money to panhandlers. Once, a coatless woman with a sob story approached me on a chilly morning at a gas station. I refused to give her a dollar, then I was shamed. A skinny shabbily clothed man who obviously lived in a nearby outdoor camp stepped up and gave her five dollars, and asked her if she needed anything else.

So, today, if someone asks me for "bus fare," "spare change," or "beer money," I don't automatically say no. I might say yes, but whenever I do, I don't feel I need to apologize for distributing my money as I see fit. And if the recipients misuse the money I give, then that's their choice, not mine. Am I an enabler? Perhaps. Just as my current employer enables me indulge in my vices.

2010-03-02 15:31:17

Ellen McKinney [unverified] said:

the street-people problem intensified when the authorities decided that it was better/cheaper to give the mentally ill the (much better) medications that had been developed and turn them loose than keep them in "hospitals" that were more like warehouses. HOWEVER, that concept also included amply funded community-based clinics that would provide consistent follow-up care and supervised use of medication, not just "here's a bottle of pills -- see you in 30 days" (if you're lucky. many needy people can't even get that.)

as for why many don't take their medication regularly, many of the meds have side effects like severe weight gain or loss of libido -- or have a street value that lets them sell a few pills and get enough money for food and/or alcohol or pot (self-medication).

as for the religious people handing out sandwiches and blankets, they seem more like jesus than the missions that require listening to a sermon in order to get a meal. if you offer someone food or a blanket without preconditions, and keep coming back with help, eventually he may listen to what you have to say.
"official" outreach workers do pretty much the same thing, as i understand it, although their goal is to get people to go to hospitals and government agencies rather than church-run missions/shelters where the price of a meal is a harangue. and which would you prefer -- to be treated like a citizen who needs help or a sinner who needs to repent?

2010-03-03 06:43:22

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

I have volunteered at one mission, Ellen, and it's probably the largest in town. The only religion I heard was the meal prayer.

Kato's story is compelling. Frankly, there's a book there. Seriously.

Do you think, Kato, that others can learn from your past? If so, let Ruthie know. Perhaps she can arrange a meet-up...I'd be glad to listen and try to put some of it down in outline form.

2010-03-03 11:35:34

George Stuteville [unverified] said:

Ever so often, I join with members of my church and the Salvation Army to make and distribute sandwiches and soup to the so-called homeless in DC.

For me, I'd rather err on the side of enabling, Ruthie. For every canny, able-bodied homeless type I see, there are at least three or four others who are utterly unable to house and feed themselves. The older I get and the more I see, the most of a socialist I become.

I don't know what the situation is in Indy anymore, but I do know that the shelters and centers in DC are wholly inadequate to the need. While I haven't seen any tents put out on 14th Street and Connecticut in
DC, there are plenty of camps beneath bridges and underpasses.

I think our job as Christians begins with leaving the judging up to Jesus. Our charge is simply and directly to feed to clothe to visit those in prisons (jails, yes, but also the prisons of addiction, economic calamity, language barriers, etc.) to educate to offer hope...

2010-03-04 09:16:57

Dave [unverified] said:

Kato's story is compelling, and puts the matter in perspective. "Homeless" is a term used mostly by folks who live other than those they adjudge as such; a whole lotta projecting there.

Not everyone living outside is mentally ill or would prefer to live otherwise.

Tangential but related; it's very strange when traveling in the tropics to hear other tourists describe local folks living under thatch as "those poor people," considering they don't see themselves that way. Why confer "victim status" on folks who don't consider themselves as such?

2010-03-06 20:28:00

Marycatherine Barton [unverified] said:

Re the issue of the 'homeless', one thing is certain, what with our economy being in shambles, their numbers are sure to continue to increase. Much love to all those who reach out to their neighbors, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned and homeless.

2010-03-07 21:48:37

Doug Ingersoll [unverified] said:

I lived in LA for a year in the early '90s. The 'bathroomless' folks there urinated in the alleys creating a stench throughout all of downtown. Fortunately it does rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.

2010-03-08 12:15:43

whosear [Member] said:

The, "homeless". Such a broad catagory for such a diverse group.

First, the mentally ill. during the soon to be departed senators gubriatorial regime, he decided after deaths at Central State to do a, "Bless the Beasts and Children" thing by letting the doors open and having them embrace, "freedom". I guess people feel better giving schizos dangerous pyschotropic meds and a fumbling lifestyle rather than asylum.

I worked on the 2000 census and found out that then there were approx 500+ permanently homeless in Marion County. It seems the census bureau stays in regular contact with them.

Then there are the temporary homeless. They are kicked out, without funds or means to rent, and need help to get back on their feet. Males, females and children fall into this category. Give them the help to help themselves, then they will pull their lives together.

Then there are those who despite all the help, cannot make it.

For the life of me, I can't distinguish between who fits where into the last two groups. So I have to pretend that they all can make it, and those who don't, I pray for their soul.

And for those of you with a hard heart: remember, life is good in this society so long as you don't weaken.

2010-03-13 14:24:27

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