America is as great as its commitment to respecting the dignity of each person, especially the poor. All human beings must be celebrated and we must always see beyond the superficial externals of social status, humbly understanding we are all the human family.
Whenever a human being is ostracized, distressed, or impoverished, a nation must respond with moral courage, compassion, and resolve. When the poor are a burden, inconvenience, or annoyance—or treated with a discriminatory indignation for their hardship—the nation is on the wrong path and must be reawakened.
‘How the Other Half Lives’
In 1890, a book titled “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis, touched the nerve of society. His masterpiece seared the conscience of America—especially the well-to-do—with words and photos on the miserable living conditions of poor immigrants in New York City slums.
The book was based on his previous magazine article, so graphically depicting the poor that New York’s rich newspaper owners refused to publish it.
The initial rejection Riis experienced eventually evolved into success. Aside from addressing failed tenement housing and the plight of immigrants, Riis called upon the wealthy of New York to have the moral courage to fix the problem.
Everything Old is New Again
“How the Other Half Lives” spoke to the heart and reminded society—particularly the upper class—of their moral obligation to assist the poor. This clarion moral trumpet must resound again in New York City, the greatest city in the world.
The Coalition for the Homeless paints the following picture of the New York City homelessness crisis:
- Homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In January 2014, there were an all-time record 53,615 homeless people, including 12,724 homeless families with 22,712 homeless children, sleeping each night in the municipal shelter system. Families make up nearly four-fifths of the homeless shelter population.
- Over the course of last year (fiscal year 2013), more than 111,000 different homeless men, women, and children slept in the municipal shelter system. This includes more than 40,000 different homeless children.
- The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 73 percent higher than in January 2002.
- Research shows that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing. Surveys of homeless families have identified the following causes of homelessness: eviction; doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing; domestic violence; and hazardous housing conditions.
America’s Wake-Up Call
As one walks the New York City streets, the homeless must touch our conscience and inspire action. Although they are throughout the city and often can be easily circumvented, there are moments when kindness toward the homeless stops us in our tracks. One such experience for me was seeing the compassion of the Missionaries of Charity—commonly known as the Sisters of Mother Teresa—tending to the homeless near Central Park’s entrance at Columbus Circle.
Although one normally associates these sisters caring for the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, here they were in the heart of New York, one of civilization’s most affluent societies, home to the richest people on the planet. New York City is the world’s epicenter of wealth, culture, education, tourism, and diversity. Yet, here were the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, serving the homeless and quietly serving a wake-up call to America’s conscience, reminding us of the suffering on New York City’s streets.
America must respond to this anguish of our human family and triumph with full force, courage, compassion, and dignity.
Vincent J. Bove, CPP, is a national speaker and author on issues critical to America. He is recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for combating crime and violence and former confidant of the New York Yankees. His newest book is “Listen To Their Cries.” For more information visit www.vincentbove.com.