ethel’s words

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There are many reasons why poor people are more powerless today than in, say, the Seventies.

The stigma of poverty has returned. No longer “Power to the people!”; no longer “Power to the poor!”. Humiliation and homelessness keep the poor from the polls. Persons born to the culture of poverty have always felt--have been made to feel--alienated from the processes of governance. (They know only the club--like the fasces--of intimidation.)

The Great Society was festooned with promises: banners declaring new equalities fluttered in countless hopeful minds. Only when there is hope do the deprived, underlying populations move and organize. Once in a while, in this new 21st Century, the blazing hope of The Sixties flashes through the shadows of despair, but we have found no way to sustain it.

The Sixties did not die suddenly; ideals of the Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) were incorporated into Federal regulations; we had government agencies mimicking the people’s organizations, instituting change, as when the free breakfast for children created by The Black Panthers (a main thrust of their programs) became breakfast at schools.

The Farmworkers organized, cried “Huelga!” and became visible. Cultural creations of their urbanized compatriots were adopted into the mainstream. And laggard, perhaps, but at the correct time for them (“Seize The Time!”) the Native Americans and the disabled found voices and extended the reign of hope. The Civil Rights triumph had become non-reversible, a shining image that has survived the battering of government assault.

So what forces, what events, brought us to this political reversal, to be trampled in nascent, inchoate fascism: the poor in the streets, harassed by the agents of government power, living in fear and inconceivable deprivation. Hunger recorded in history, hunger in the hills, in the woods, on farms turned to dust, does not destroy dignity as does hunger in city streets. Ever walking the streets, the homeless watch great buildings rise; even whole neighborhoods of massive structures and luxurious spaces. But they hear, always, there are no funds to build private shelter for the poorest of the poor, or, there are vague promises that seem never to materialize. They know they are discarded--even without seeing the homes as large as hotels of the Thirties blotting the mountainsides south of Salt Lake City.

Thus beaten down, powerless, in despair, the homeless seek a place to sit down after the rigors of job- and food-hustling, and with the hollowness of ever-present hunger. There are few places: the sitting-down poor person is as unacceptable as a “sitting-down Negro” was before Civil Rights. There are few benches in the city parks.

In Salt Lake City, Mayor Rocky Anderson points to new housing for the homeless, but there are ever more. A recent report counted 900 seeking shelter.

Loss of home may be only a payday away for many workers--and not only the working poor--many almost affluent homes depend on a paycheck. Still, the barriers to the most minimal housing remain un-publicized, though it is clear that, whoever is temporarily the face of government, they want the poor to disappear--but they seek no way to lift them out of poverty. (Most are not jobless but their labor is de-valued by the attitudes of money grubbing.) It does seem well-established that no municipality wants housing that does not enrich government coffers.

In the bitter cold of winter, the homeless walk ceaselessly to keep from freezing to death (some have frozen). In summer, they would prefer to sleep outside, but cities have become so disdainful of the poor, or even of summertime adventuring youths, they do not allow OUR parks to be used at night. Just what is it that the powerful can’t stand about somebody sleeping on a blanket on the grass in a park? When I was a child, it was customary, especially for children, to sleep outside under a sky that had visible twinkling stars, an experience city children cannot enjoy--the stars are veiled by pollution.

The suffering of the homeless, the still-impoverished disabled, the deprived, writes the disgraceful reason: we have no plan, no program, no vision of a better society. We must not care.

Ethel C. Hale