The great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was one of the first authors to focus the light of his literary genius on their miserable existence. His social conscience would not allow him to pass by on the other side.
However it is one thing to wax lyrical about the homeless and destitute but quite another to be confronted with their plight first hand as I was to discover on my recent visit to Portland, Oregon. It was my first visit to America and during the drive from the airport I caught sight of an individual staggering from a store clutching a paper bag. Gaabriel, my host, explained that homelessness was a problem within most American cities and Portland was no exception. Where Portland stood in stark contrast to many others was the liberal stance it took towards this unfortunate section of society. Many States employ aggressive measures to clear their streets of the Great Unwanted and although there is no Government or State support for these individuals at least Portland has a Mission where fortunate individuals can get a bed and a roof for the night.
It is human nature to pass judgement on others. Most of us cannot help wonder how anyone gets to end up living on the streets. Hopefully very few of us hold the same views as those expressed by one of my characters, Ebenezer Clinton Scrooge III. Arriving at the steps of his Manhattan headquarters he is confronted by a less affluent member of New York City society.
"Scrooge smiled, this was no hired assassin sent on a mission to destroy only a common beggar chancing his arm, or what remained of it. A diseased symptom of the times. New York was infested with such hopeless individuals seeking solace and oblivion in alcohol or drugs, authors of their own destruction, and as such deserving of no sympathy or special favours. Still they never usually surfaced in this district preferring instead to haunt the more stagnant cess-pits of the city. Perhaps the fact it was Christmas Eve had emboldened this particular specimen into venturing further afield in the false hope that honest citizens would be more inclined to lunatic displays of charity many being so imbued with festive spirits they would carelessly part with their hard earned dollars." (A Christmas Carol Revisited).This is the dark side of the American Dream. Every good Doctor Jekyll has his own Mr Hyde to some degree or another. Perhaps it is how we react to the darkness that defines us as individuals and nations. Or is it if we are even prepared to confront that darkness in our society and in our selves? The 'hopeless individual' in the story is called Stephen, the 'hopeless individual' who confronted me on the streets of Portland was called Arnold.
We were down town waiting for a bus when Arnold approached. He was obviously distressed. Apparently he had been attempting to gain access to one of the toilets in the city precincts. It was locked and from what we could understand Arnold had been forcibly removed because he kept complaining that someone had hurt his arm. I learnt later that it was common practice to lock the toilets as they were in constant danger of being commandeered by the likes of Arnold on the lookout for somewhere dry and secure to sleep. It was also obvious Arnold had significant mental health issues. He insisted we call the cops otherwise he would kill someone.
I don't think anyone felt threatened but we all felt uncomfortable. I pretended to phone the cops but Arnold wasn't fooled for a second. Eventually the bus arrived and we got on board. Arnold followed. It soon became obvious Arnold was going nowhere until someone called the cops. As he became more distressed so his threats became more extravagant to the point he was now prepared to kill everyone on the bus. People began to get off not because they felt threatened but because they realised it would probably be quicker to walk home. Throughout the whole incident the lady bus driver spoke soothingly to Arnold and even provided him with a drink. Her compassionate attitude had a marked impact upon Arnold who became an increasingly less threatening yet more tragic figure by the minute. Eventually Arnold got his wish and the cops arrived.
'Street Roots' is a paper sold by the homeless on the streets and is Portland's version of the 'Big Issue'. The lead story the week I was there was regarding the way certain States were dealing with the problem of homeless people with mental health issues. Their solution was to provide these vulnerable individuals with enough food and money for a few days and a bus ticket to some place else. There they would duly arrive with no contacts or support and whatever provision they had left. Problem solved. It staggers me that large sections of American society still oppose ObamaCare.
It was with a sense of relief that we watched Arnold being escorted away. He was obviously known to the local police who dealt with him courteously and gently. Whether he got a nice dry, warm cell for the night is another matter. My thoughts often return to Arnold and I wonder how he possibly survives life on the streets. Could I have done more to help? There is a gulf between feeling compassion at some general esoteric level and acting upon that compassion at the subjective level of reality. If I am honest, Arnold was a burden I did not want to bear. He was not my responsibility after all. Like the Pharisee I shuffled by on the other side. It is not always a comfortable experience when our characters turn up on our doorstep.