[Hpn] Detroit, MI - Homeless, hungry too often invisible - The Detroit News - November 3, 2003

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Mon, 3 Nov 2003 12:57:49 -0500

Homeless, hungry too often invisible

By Luther Keith - The Detroit News - November 3, 2003

Detroit, MI - In many ways, they are the invisible people.

I'm talking about the homeless and desperately poor who walk our
streets begging for money, saying they need food or some other
kind of help to see them through hard times.

They set up near Metro Detroit freeway overpasses or at major
intersections, holding up signs with the now-cliched entreaties
of "Will work for food," or "Homeless, hungry, God Bless."

They have almost become as much a part of our freeway
architecture as those dreaded orange construction barrels.

Some will intercept you on your way to lunch or maybe as you walk
into your local gas station or drugstore.

If you're like me, your first reaction often is: "I wonder if
this person is trying to con me."

And in some cases, they clearly are. If you offer to buy them
some food, they'll say "no thanks," a clear indication that they
are probably looking for a handout to feed their alcoholism or
drug habit instead of their stomach.

There are also those shameless adults who make a young child part
of their con, saying they need money so "I can feed my baby" or
supposedly to catch a bus to their new job. You don't want to be
cold-hearted about these matters but you can't save everybody.

That's what I had to tell my young daughter after digging into my
pocket to give some change to a street beggar. When I didn't
respond to an appeal from another man, she wanted to know why.

The truth is most of us, even the most bleeding-heart liberal,
can't afford to fork over a few bucks every time we encounter
someone else's misfortune.

So the beggars, partly for our own mental sanity, become
invisible to us and blend into the urban landscape.

But every now and then, you cross paths with them in a way that
makes them jarringly visible.

That happened to me about a year ago in downtown Detroit in front
of one the city's major entertainment venues. I saw a bedraggled
man fish around inside a public trash receptacle, pull out a
half-eaten fast-food sandwich of some sort and devour it in full
view of some rather stunned onlookers.

It happened again the other day while driving on the city's east
side. About a block ahead of me, I could see a city garbage truck
heading in my direction and stopping at each home's curbside to
dump trash bins sitting on the street.

As I got closer, I noticed a raggedly clothed man with a
supermarket shopping cart about 300 yards ahead of the truck. The
man was furiously pushing the shopping cart from trash bin to
trash bin, pulling the lids open and filling his cart with
discarded food or anything else that he might deem useful. He was
going as fast as possible to get to the trash bins before the
garbage truck. I did a double take. The man must be truly
desperate or mentally ill, I concluded.

There are all kinds of well-chronicled reasons why people end up
on the street. And let's acknowledge that a few folks simply
don't want to work. I'm not talking about them.

Some have addictions. Others are mentally ill and can't get the
help they need. Some have lost jobs or been pushed over the edge
by a personal crisis.

Public policy does have a place to play in tackling this problem
by making available drug and alcohol treatment, and job training
and employment opportunities for those who have the desire to
turn their lives around. And we can financially support the many
community outreach programs to help the poor.

These are lean times for many, even for those not out on the
street. The poverty rates in the nation (12.1 percent) and in
Michigan (10.5 percent) have increased in the past two years.

Now, with Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, there will be
the usual flurry of activity to help the less fortunate through
the holiday season. We all are likely to be a little more giving,
a little more compassionate.

And maybe, even if we can't always personally come to their aid,
the less fortunate won't be invisible to us for the rest of the year.

Luther Keith is senior editor of The Detroit News. His column
appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at (313)
222-2675 or lkeith@detnews.com.

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