Right now it is -12 degrees F outside. Weather like this is life-threatening, but I'm lying on a couch in a t-shirt watching The Simpsons and typing on a laptop. The worst thing I have to worry about at the moment is cabin fever, as by Tuesday I'll have been stuck in the house for three days. The weather is at worst a minor inconvenience to me because I live indoors. I assume that most of you are in the habit of taking this for granted, as I am. But a few times per year when the weather is particularly brutal I walk home from work thinking, you know, it really wouldn't be very pleasant to sleep on a park bench right now.
The older I get, the more I realize how tenuous is our hold on the basic comforts of middle-class life. Whether or not we realize it, every single one of us is three misfortunes away from being homeless. You get fired. You get sick while you have no insurance. You decide to self-medicate with cheap vodka. Your path to poverty and homelessness is smooth and clear at that point. We like to think we're better than being homeless; sometimes we find out the hard way that we're not.
Over the weekend I saw a handful of news stories about one city or another is devoting resources to getting the homeless indoors during the "Arctic Blast" affecting half the country today. It's just the sort of band-aid approach Americans are good at. Certainly it's good that the homeless will have a better chance of getting indoors when it's -20. But what about when things go back to normal and it's "only" 10 or 20 degrees rather than below zero? Hundreds of homeless people die of hypothermia in comparatively tame winter weather every year.
It's not a problem any of us really like thinking about. We go out of our way to avoid making eye contact with homeless people so we can pretend they don't exist or, failing that, that they're not human. If we look at them and talk to them like people ("Sorry, I don't have any cash on me" or "OK, here you go. I hope you have a good one.") then we have a much harder time pretending that we're fundamentally different. Don't get me wrong, I'm an irritable person and when a completely insane panhandler is all over me I'm doing my best to get away. But if those of us who lucky enough to have four walls and a roof treat homeless people like people it's much harder to forget that there but for the grace of god go any of us.
Maybe that's why Americans expend so much time and energy belittling and lecturing the homeless (and the poor in general). We're not afraid of them so much as we're afraid of how much of ourselves we see in them.