New legends of homeless, ominous signs for
By CHARLIE JAMES
Special to The
Times July 28
SHE stood with a slight stoop to her
shoulders as though the sign she carried was slowly pulling her to the ground.
"Two kids and no place to stay. Any help would be appreciated."
this woman? Where did she come from?
He stood ramrod straight with
eyes that could have been piercing if filled with anything but the empty stare
of fear and helplessness. "Vietnam Vet, homeless, wife and two kids.
Who is this man? Where did he come from?
They are two
of several hundred who are standing on street corners all over Seattle. They
once were concentrated downtown but now they are in every neighborhood. You see
individuals, couples and even entire families begging for handouts.
They are a new and frightening legend of homelessness, and they look like the
family next door and the man who used to bag my groceries.
so familiar. They feel so near.
It's not just in Seattle. They are in
every major city and many smaller ones as well. They should not be there, but
At the same time, the stock market is rocking. Billionaires
are popping up everywhere and a new rich elite is making its presence felt. In a
place like Seattle, with all of these high-tech millionaires, housing prices are
skyrocketing. Buying a million-dollar piece of property just to tear down the
house and build a five-million-dollar one is commonplace now. They are pushing
up the cost of affordable housing. Maybe it's time for them to build some
sophisticated the technology, the fewer people it takes to operate it. Someone
has got to lose a job, a home and, eventually, pride. So they find themselves on
a street corner holding a sign.
For African Americans, there is an additional
concern. We know that the history of this nation has repeatedly demonstrated
that when European Americans are holding signs on street corners, African
Americans better look both ways at least three times before crossing the street.
This nation has not seen this many European Americans on the street with signs
since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Hello. Is anybody
OK I know. We have decided to ignore them as we hurry to
and from our power lunches.
But they are not going anywhere. Something
is wrong, and if we don't fix it soon, our streets will become a battleground.
As the homeless numbers swell and they move into every unoccupied nook and
cranny in this city, communities of homeless will eventually emerge and
territorial battles may be fought over the open spaces, the parks or every
A nation is not
defined by the famous names in the newspapers. It's defined by the lifestyle of
its middle class and that group just below them that is trying to become middle
class. When they decide that the system will not allow them to move up and
participate in the economy of the nation, they align themselves with the poor
and try to overthrow the system. All revolutions have been led by members of the
disgruntled middle class.
Most historians believe that a
revolution in America would be highly unlikely because too many people have
invested in the current system. But when you see the kinds of people now
claiming to be homeless, you must wonder about where all of this may lead us.
Who are these faces on the street corners?
Where did they come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Are they an
aberration or are they the first wave of refugees permanently flushed out of
this democratic, capitalist system?
Are some of these
sign-carrying homeless frauds making a quick buck? Probably.
is something in the face of most of them. A sense of hopelessness surrounds
them; their body language tells you they cannot afford the luxury of pride.
Their eyes cannot mask the pain and even self-loathing.
Their clothing and mannerism
often speak of a better time and a better life. You don't want to look because
you suspect that you too could slip down those same slippery slopes of social
The shelters are full, thousands of families are
becoming homeless every year and available housing for low-income people gets
more and more scarce. This is a crucial moment in the history of this nation,
and how it responds to this new army of homeless will set the stage for the next
millennium and possibly be one of the great historical failures of this
Her hair still carries a touch of perm, his shoes still gleam
with the faint memory of a not-so-distant shine.
They just arrived
with lives withering like raisins in the sun.
Where did they come
Where are they going?
Today is his day to hold the
CharlieJames is publisher of the African-American
Business & Employment Journal. He can be contacted by e-mail at