New legends of homeless, ominous signs for nation
Special to The Times July 28 1999

  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."
  Who is 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. HELP!"
  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.
  They look 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 they are.
  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 more.
  The more 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 listening?
  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 abandoned building.
  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.         I
  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.
  But there 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 oblivion.
  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 one.
  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 from?
  Where are they going?
  Today is his day to hold the sign.

CharlieJames is publisher of the African-American Business & Employment Journal. He can be contacted by e-mail at