This past week, the Bush administration touted that there was a 30 percent drop (from 175,914 in 2005 to 123,833 in 2007) in the number of "chronically homeless" people in the nation -- those who are unaccompanied, disabled and have been homeless for longer than one year.
I have my differences with the Bush administration, but credit needs to be given where credit is due. It is a step in the right direction that 50,000 more "chronically homeless" (of the roughly 750,000 total homeless in the U.S.) are off the streets, out of shelters and in secure environments. (Not counted here are those recently affected by the swell of foreclosures -- 739,714 filings in the second quarter of 2008 alone.)
In particular, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Philip Mangano, should be commended for leading communities across the country to develop plans for reducing homelessness. Also very helpful are the community outreaches by Rolling Thunder and other groups that are extending their helping hands to homeless veterans.
I'm not writing this column to propose some one-size-fits-all homeless solution. I'm writing it because I thought, even though Congress left on a five-week hiatus without helping us with our energy (gas) crisis, I want to encourage Americans not to follow suit and turn a blind eye to the needs of others around us -- even on vacation. I realize that caring for the homeless in particular can often be complicated, and we never should jeopardize our safety in doing so. But we can't allow complications or even callousness to stop our compassion. Let me give you a recent example of how my family was reminded of that.
For part of our summer vacation, we spent a few days at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, in California. One night, on the way back to our hotel, we passed three homeless men. One of them said to our 6-year-old twins, "Wait, I have something for you." Of course, our kids know not to talk or receive things from strangers. But I saw warmth in his eyes, so we walked over to him. The man said he had some coupons to ride the rides. But after rummaging through his pockets, he came up empty-handed. I thanked him for his offer, and we walked on.
Back at the hotel, our daughter, Danilee, said she would like to draw him a picture. But it was too dark and late to be running around the city looking for him. When we went to bed that night, we prayed together, and our kids prayed for him. As the kids slept, my wife, Gena, and I talked and concurred, "There was something different about this man -- this encounter."