While recently driving and listening to National Public Radio, I heard a piece on holiday homelessness. During this time of the year, one frequently hears stories about the downtrodden and homeless. No one seems to agree exactly on the number of homeless, and the numbers cited often depend on the information provider's agenda.
Shortly before George W. Bush's presidential election, the Wall Street Journal argued that with a "mean-spirited, non-compassionate" (my description) Republican in the White House, expect to see an explosion in media stories about the homeless. The paper came up with a new feature on their Web site -- the "Homelessness Rediscovery Watch" -- to track the increase of stories about homelessness under this Republican president.
A few years ago, I interviewed Father Robert Sirico, a Roman Catholic priest who runs the Acton Institute in Michigan. Father Robert believes that government-provided charity increases dependency, and considers people-to-people charity more compassionate, efficient, humane, and, thus, more likely to change behavior from dependency to self-sufficiency.
An irate caller, who said he worked at a soup kitchen during the "harsh" Reagan years, challenged Father Robert's thesis, claiming a "huge increase" in homelessness as a result of Reagan's dastardly "trickle-down economics." Father Robert asked, how do you know those showing up at soup kitchens were, in fact, poor or homeless? Did anyone means-test them, ask for proof of indigence? Did at least some of the people, he suggested, show up for free goodies? So how can you prove this "uptick" in homelessness onto Reagan?
The caller stammered something about simply assuming those who showed up, by definition, constituted the homeless and the needy.
Most living on the street include the mentally ill, the alcohol- or drug-addicted. But some able-bodied and able-minded people simply scam others, exploiting the compassion we have for the defenseless. But how many simply lie about their condition?
What about the honesty of the non-homeless? Years ago, while living in an apartment in Cleveland, I subscribed to the city's principal daily newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The paperboy delivered it to my front door each morning before about 7:00 a.m. But, at least 30 percent of the time, if I failed to retrieve the paper from the hallway floor, by, say, 7:30 or 7:45, someone filched the newspaper.