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October 31, 2000


The Invisible People

"Walking about the streets...gave me an eerie, out-of-focus sensation of a dream. ... Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me, that they would have begged the pardon of Jack the Bear, never glancing his way if the bear happened to be walking along minding his business."

These words were written by Ralph Ellison in his 1952 novel Invisible Man, about the experience of being a young black man in white America, but they could well describe the attitude of most urban Americans to the homeless -- the new invisible people.

It is notoriously difficult even to count the number of homeless people in America, but the best estimates indicate that around 600,000 people are homeless in this country on any given day, not including the "couch people" who don't have homes of their own but are camping in the homes of relatives or friends. A recent census of the homeless in Mobile put the number of homeless individuals in the city at over 700. Nationwide, roughly a fourth of the homeless are children, about half of whom are under age five. It is one of the ironies of the 1990s that the strong economy has actually contributed to the amount of homelessness in some cities by driving up rents.

Homelessness is a complex issue, and one that is difficult to deal with. The first requirement, however, is that as a society we stop pretending not to see the homeless, and give up some of the myths that make people feel better about the homeless but prevent anything being done to alleviate the problems. These myths are familiar, and like all myths have a faint relation to fact, but are wildly misleading notions about the homeless: most homeless people are bums who choose homelessness as a "lifestyle"; most of the homeless are drug and/or alcohol addicts; most homeless people are mentally ill; the homeless have plenty of shelters and other facilities for those who choose to use them. As generalizations, all of these are patently not true; the uncomfortable truth is that the primary causes of homelessness in Mobile and in the U.S. generally are poverty and the lack of affordable housing options for the poor.

The shame of homelessness in a nation as wealthy as the U.S. is that as a society we know how to deal with these issues, but have chosen not to, preferring to cling to the myths. We collectively close our eyes to the problem just as we individually close our eyes to the people we encounter on the streets. The recent conference sponsored by the Homeless Coalition of Mobile was a laudable effort to turn the spotlight on the issue of homelessness and to raise public awareness of some dimensions of the problem and possible solutions. Our challenge as a community is to not avert our eyes and, in the words of Lyndon Baines Johnson, to "grab the bull by the tail and look the problem straight in the eye."

Life Forms by Dan Silver - Revisited

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Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,

Gore and Bush are asked the same old questions.

Below are some of the questions asked by Ralph Nader of Chairman John Kasich and members of the House Budget Committee on June 30, 1999:

Why should the Pentagon subsidize commercial arms supports when these arms may end up in the hands of dictators?

Why the Market Access Program? If business determines that a particular program is not market-worthy, why does the government subsidize it?

Why do we allow mergers and acquisitions to continue by military suppliers to the point that the military has to go to the few suppliers that are left and pay whatever they determine the price should be?

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century will allocate billions of dollars for new road construction. Why aren't they supporting mass transportation that reduces sprawl, air pollution and global warming?

The $180,000,000 World Bank loan to Exxon, Shell and Elf (a French company) for oil pipeline in Africa allowing them to get private financing. If they cannot finance the entire project, maybe it should not go forward? Critics say the project threatens the rainforests, conservation areas and drinking water and is likely to exacerbate local conflict.

Why are farm subsidies needed when prices have not gone down and the beneficiary is agribusiness consolidation?

Why do we allow the looting of Uncle Sam by an ever-growing Big Business?

Why are there such a lack of law review and Ph.D. dissertations and a paucity of academic attention to the issue of corporate welfare?

Why was the 1872 Mining Act reinstated after the horrors that are known it caused?

Why shouldn't the Congress (that represents the people) nullify all existing programs that are given to corporations at below market prices?

Why do we not discuss excessive executive compensation that heightens income and wealth inequalities, causes friction between management and labor and tears at the nation's social fabric, before there is social conflict?

Why do we not stop the financial holding companies that presume that the government will have to bail them out?

Why didn't the government sell the airwaves at fair market value to the broadcast industry, rather than turn it into a $70,000,000,000 give-away?

Why did the government give away public assets such as the Internet naming rights? SAIC got the Internet naming rights for $3.9 million dollars, now it's worth $2.5 billion dollars.

Why in 1994 did the American Barrick Corporation, a Canadian company, receive 2,000 acres of public land that contained $10,000,000,000 in recoverable gold reserves? Taxpayers received less than $10,000. In 1995 a Danish company received land in Idaho containing $1,000,000,000 in minerals for $275.

According to the Mineral Policy Center from 1872 to 1993 mining companies took more than $230,000,000,000 out of federal lands royalty free.

How can the government-industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles allow the auto industry, an industry recording record profits, to continue to pollute the air with impunity?

Why wasn't the S&L debacle stopped before it became such a crisis? The warning signs were there. The S&L crisis was triggered in a large part by industry deregulation. It allowed S&L's to raise interest rates and leave their area of expertise and venture in uncharted, riskier waters. And then, why did the citizens become the insurers instead of the stockholders?

Robert Katz

Dear Editor,

This just in from the September/October issue of Sierra magazine: Campaign Contributions as of June 1, 2000 for George W. Bush and Al Gore




Oil & Gas



Real Estate















Sabrina Brennan


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