Opinion / Chen Weihua

A problem on the home front US can do without

By Chen Weihua (China Daily) Updated: 2015-12-18 09:58

Visiting the United States for the first time in 1993, I was deeply impressed by how rich, vibrant and advanced the country was. At the same time, I was appalled by the huge army of homeless people on the streets of the big cities such as New York, Washington, San Francisco and even Honolulu.

I spent a year in Honolulu, where I was told that some states actually sent their homeless to Hawaii so that they wouldn't freeze to death in winter, something I still find difficult to believe and have not been able to verify.

However, 22 years on there can be no doubting the population of the homeless in the US is huge, ranging from half a million to more than 3 million depending on the source of data. In New York City, widely regarded as the greatest American city, it has swollen to a staggering 60,000, nearing the city's record. In fact, two of the city's top officials in charge of homelessness affairs resigned recently due to the slow progress on this front. That there is a Department of Homeless Services in New York shows the severity of the chronic societal problem.

I will never forget a scene outside China Daily's New York office building on 43rd Street years ago, as a homeless man sat outside in snowy winter making his bed by a grate on the sidewalk.

In Washington where I now live and work, homeless people are often seen squeezing into cardboard box homes at night in the city center. Washington's DuPont Circle and Farragut Square, which I pass by often, are two of the parks where homeless people are a permanent scene, and they include some people who hold signs reading "Please Help Homeless Veterans".

Outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library near Chinatown in the US capital, every day sees long queues of homeless people waiting to be picked up and taken to temporary shelters.

According to a report in The Washington Post in May, last winter there were 11,623 people without permanent shelter in the Washington region.

While touting respect for veterans has become a trend in American politicians, the serious issue of homelessness in the US, especially among veterans, has never been mentioned in the Republican presidential debates, including the one held in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

This is despite the fact that a Gallup poll in March showed that more than one-third of American respondents (37 percent) worry "a great deal" and 27 percent worry "a fair amount" about hunger and homelessness in the US. Another 27 percent said they worry "a little", only 8 percent said they were "not at all" worried.

The warmth in this otherwise extremely cold and sad situation comes from the many charity organizations that try to help the homeless. Just as I left Washington for New York last weekend for a month-long trip, I saw a stand set up in Edward R. Murrow Park near the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters distributing food and daily necessities to the homeless.

Ironic given that the mission of the World Bank, whose largest shareholder is the US, is to reduce and eradicate poverty.

US leaders like to talk about how great their country is. That might be true in many respects. But when it comes to tackling the problem of homelessness, it has clearly been a huge failure.

A great nation should not have homeless people waiting outside convenience stores, subway stations and parks, as in New York City.

The author is editor of China Daily USA.

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