Here’s how convoluted a dialogue about rights can become: If I’m an uptight prig who has decided that homosexuality is somehow against God, and because of that I refuse to bake someone a wedding cake… then when I’m told I can’t discriminate like that in these United States, I complain of a denial of my rights as a Christian.
Hold that thought for a moment as we salute some terrific young people who on January 22nd will sleep outdoors for the entire night as a means of demonstrating about and understanding homelessness. The youngsters are members of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Monica’s Keystone Club. The event is rain or shine, just like being homeless, and it works to educate teens and the community about the issue of homelessness. Bravo to young people who understand walking a mile in the other person’s shoes.
When I hear of actions like this, I am struck with how simple it seems it could be to end homelessness. Every town and city in America has empty buildings that, for one reason or another, cannot find renters. Especially on the coldest nights of the year, why are we not simply opening those doors and letting people in?
Here’s where someone who administrates shelters might tell you stories about fights and people stealing other people’s property and trouble in the showers, etc. Some homeless in New York City feel that the streets are safer than some of the shelters there.
But, in a country that indulges excessive and florid behavior on the part of a rich mediocrity who blows garbage out his mouth and then accepts the “endorsement” of his female equal who wears Liberace’s day robe onstage… shouldn’t we at least indulge desperate need, and make having a roof over your head a human right?
Let’s recognize that administrating for the homeless is not easy because of the diversity of their ranks. The homeless include people often on the streets because there simply was no one else to fight for them. A single parent mother who is holding everything together by a thread is out of shelter when that thread breaks. There can be alcoholics and drug addicts, people with serious mental illness that manifests as delusions and anger issues, and people who would kill another person for a better pair of boots. One might argue that – just like the rest of society – the homeless exist in great variation, with fluctuation in motivation, and often suffer depression.
But back to what at first glance seems a simple question: Should there be a right to shelter; a roof over one’s head and the expectation that on the streets of America no one dies of hunger? As I attempted to point out at the top, “rights” can become an involved discussion. It’s still not settled whether health care is a “right.” Historically, the notion that people have a right to health care kind of set itself up in our minds without being fully vetted. We know about ourselves that we do not leave injured people to bleed to death on a sidewalk simply because they aren’t packing a health care card. So what would cause us to not make shelter available for all when we recognize that we don’t knowingly let people suffer?
I suspect Bernie Sanders could give you a fuller response than I can. But my fear is that we are teetering on some kind of acceptance that more Americans will suffer from poverty on a much greater scale than they do now because the gaping maw of income disparity feels like a huge problem we don’t know how to solve.
We have acted boldly and with impressive results on the idea that society should encourage the reading of books by making books available for free in public libraries. We are able to source blood supplies for hospitals by relying on citizens to do the right thing and donate their blood. We do both these things without questioning the social status or class of those involved at the receiving end of the process. With both libraries and blood donations, I’m not certain the term “rights” comes up that often.
Instead, we move toward what is good with a kind of eerie magnetic guidance. Of course, we are fallible. Somebody in Flint wasn’t paying attention to something as critical as drinking water. But while Los Angeles and our own city of Santa Monica struggle with long-term efforts for the homeless let us agree that if we know we would provide a person with something to read and blood if they needed it, then we should likely want to ensure they always have a roof over their head. Whether that’s a “right”, it certainly feels right.