Let Them Eat … Nothing?

PovertyStarting this September, Dallas, Texas will fine organizations for feeding the homeless — a move that has angered the many charities, churches, and individuals serving meals to the city’s burgeoning indigent population.

It’s a regrettable situation. City officials are desperate to revitalize the downtown area to broaden appeal to residents and businesses, and homeless settlements halt gentrification, increase trash and crime, and lower property values. But the solution — serving meals only at designated areas — doesn’t work for those that have spent years establishing trust with the men and women they feed. Coaxing them to new locations is something they feel is highly unlikely.

“The problem is that isn’t gonna work. The homeless aren’t gonna go there,” said Phil Romano, a restaurateur whose group Hunger Busters serves meals three days a week.

Romano and others say that they intend to ignore the ordinance and risk the fines, which could range between $200 and $2,000. While I don’t necessarily agree with such guerilla tactics, keeping people fed and sheltered is something an important goal for any healthy society. So how does a community balance the needs of the poor and downtrodden against the needs of the many? Is it worth ignoring crumbling and decaying neighborhoods if it means a few hundred outcasts have food and shelter?

“None of us think it is wrong to feed the poor. But to have people believe they are above the law because they are doing God’s work is troublesome,” said community activist Gwen Gaylen.

More and more people fall off the grid each day while arguments like this rage across the nation. And while I realize we live in a democracy, isn’t a little socialism acceptable when it comes to keeping our fellow citizens fed?

With all the money being spent waging war against Iraq, why can’t we turn those efforts and attentions back on our own people? Why spend billions to kill when a malnourished child sleeps on the streets?

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It’s easy to be homeless in the United States.

Emergency medical care can wipe one’s savings out in the blink of an eye. Break a leg or grow a cancer without insurance and watch the bills pile up. Caring for sick relatives can bankrupt even the most fiscally responsible people.

Lose your job for three months and watch your lifestyle evaporate. Well-paying gigs have migrated overseas, so finding another is out of the question. Meanwhile, your mortgage is due, the car isn’t paid for, and the electricity just got turned off.

Any number of things can leave the average American without money. The cost of living rises while real wages diminish; it doesn’t take a seasoned economist to figure out the kind of pressures that creates. The disparity between the poor and the wealthy has never been greater.

Don’t believe me? The Houston Chronicle reports that on the same day Dallas intends to start fining people for feeding the homeless at illegal settlements, Texas itself will raise electricity costs for low-income households by 10 percent — because budget writers raided the LITE-UP Texas program to balance the state’s budget. Some 115,000 households will be affected to the tune of $17 a month, or $200 a year.

To the well-off bureaucrats in Austin, $200 a year might not seem like a lot of money. To the family who relied on the rebate to keep their family fed or keep the hot summer heat at bay with an air conditioner, it makes all the difference. “Trickle-down” economics like this are taking place all over; programs that help the poor tend to get the axe when states try to stop from sliding into bankruptcy themselves.

These programs could be fully funded by a fraction of the money the federal government piles into the military complex every year. Am I suggesting that Washington, D.C. act as a panacea for every social ill that exists in our nation? Hardly, but we need to focus on ourselves.

We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars abroad combatting a phantom menace. We have destroyed the infrastructure of a sovereign nation and promised to rebuild it. Our all-volunteer army is underfunded and stretched thin. Troops armor their Humvees with scraps of metal found in the desert.

All the while, we throw money at illegal immigrants while denying basic entitlements to our own citizens. Our leaders applaud trade agreements that ship labor jobs out of the United States while importing poorly-crafted textiles.

Our priorities are severely out of whack. I can only hope that others think the same.

I suggest again what I have suggested before: let’s pay attention to our own social ills. Americans strut around and mock other nations while thinking their own shit doesn’t stink. Let’s take the wasted money we spend ($1 billion per week to Iraq alone) and point it inwards.

With a highways system crumbling further every day, how great would it be to use those billions on new infrastructure? Or pay for the expensive anti-terrorism statutes foisted on states by the government but never properly funded?

With $1 billion, we could rebuild hundreds of crumbling schools, hire teachers and give children a real education. Another billion could feed millions of homeless, house them and give them vocational training for years, or it could provide medical care for those who don’t have health insurance. There are so many other things that could better take advantage of the money that it staggers the mind.

It’s not “communist” to want to see the United States live up to its potential. When I see cities arguing over how to fine people for helping a strata of society in desperate need of help, and when we continue to waste what resources we have on a needless war, the decision is easy.

Quit trying to “help” everyone else. We’ve got enough problems of our own for a while.