News reports during the recent cold snap and storm provided me with my yearly dose of mixed feelings of disgust and gratitude. Suddenly, the media discovers the homeless population and decides to cultivate a bit of public sympathy.
It is a good thing that the plight of the homeless gets attention during times of extreme weather because it means a few lives will be saved. Cities and towns send out workers to comb streets and alleys to look for people who might do better in a heated space for the night. They end up not only saving lives but also toes and fingers.
The shelter workers who go out on frigid nights understand the plight of the homeless throughout the year. They know that the weather is only one of the hardships that the homeless have to endure.
It's ironic that I am using this weather-related homeless sympathy to put my two cents into the mix, but when a topic is on the minds of the public that is the best time to talk about it.
Locally, we have a number of human service agencies that try to help the homeless as much as possible. Most notably, Morningside Shelter, The Brattleboro Area Drop In Center and the Winter Overflow Shelter, to name a few. Many other agencies support the services of these organizations.
The media has a great opportunity to make more of the public aware of the root causes of homelessness and talk about how social and economic inequality is killing and hurting so many Americans. Instead, they continue with their short-sighted, superficial sound bites and stories to exploit the drama of the exposure to cold.
A large majority of the homeless deal with mental health and substance abuse issues. These are problems that our society will always face, but we could do a better job of dealing with them. Instead, whenever budgets are tight we often see cuts to programs that affect people dealing with these issues.
The result is that cuts and lack of support make the vulnerable more vulnerable. A recent example played out when Washington politicians refused to extend unemployment benefits to millions of Americans as the morally bankrupt headed to their comfortable homes for one of many "vacations."
It may be a revelation to politicians that many homeless people work to try to help themselves. That does not fit the image the media creates of the homeless, but too many in the media don't have a clue about the scope of homelessness and many don't spend the time to find out more than they need to know for the six o'clock news report.
When I served on the board of Morningside Shelter I tried to understand the stories of the people who stayed at the shelter. I met many of the shelter residents and I tried to learn what it would take for them to get back on their feet and become productive members of society once again.
I still hold on to the stinging image of the woman I knew from the shelter who was working at Price Chopper supermarket, trying to get her life back. Whenever she saw me at the checkout line she would try to avoid me.
It wasn't that she didn't like me, it was that she didn't want to be reminded of the fact that she was homeless and she surely didn't want to get into a conversation with me in front of customers and co-workers when there might be a risk of letting others know of her situation.
So how does society work to decrease the epidemic of homelessness? The first thing we need to do is to find a way to not have the issue only become visible during frigid cold snaps. If people are constantly reminded of the horrors of homelessness they might feel compelled to do something about it during all kinds of weather.
That would be a good first step. Other measures have to address increasing the minimum wage and to find a way to stop our society from creating such great inequalities in wealth. These are not easy problems to solve, but if we do not begin to address them more seriously than we have in the past, the numbers of homeless and near-homeless will continue to rise.
If you want to help support local efforts check out the Saturday, Jan. 10 concert at 7 p.m. at the Stone Church in Brattleboro to benefit the Brattleboro Overflow Shelter or become a regular donor to Morningside Shelter or the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.