17 September 2009

Moral dilemma

I met Leslie yesterday afternoon at the recycling center. I saw him as I drove in and immediately became nervous. He appeared to be homeless; he was weather-worn and his clothing seemed dusty and faded. I did not want him to approach me to ask for money.

The social issue of homelessness makes me uncomfortable. We see the evidence, vis-à-vis panhandling, that homelessness exists. But still, it is troubling on so many levels. I avoid making eye contact with men or women panhandling at intersections, and I almost hold my breath until the traffic light turns green so I can drive away. Relieved.

I think that more and more citizens are gaining awareness of the complex problems that lead to homelessness: mental illness, poverty, substance addiction, alcohol addiction, a history of family instability. No one chooses to be homeless, just as no one chooses to have a mental illness. The presence of a mental illness compromises the ability to perceive reality and consequently, make rational decisions. Earlier this year, Diverse Works featured
Ben Tecumseh DeSoto’s multimedia compilation entitled Understanding Poverty, with an in-depth look at the systemic circumstances contributing to homelessness.

I left the exhibit with as many questions unanswered as when I entered.

  • Are any current social programs effective in their attempts to remedy these complex problems?
  • Does society have a moral obligation to house and protect the mentally ill and how would this solution not look like the horrifying mental-institutions of years past?
  • If more funding were directed to treatment for the mentally ill, would we be able to perceive positive results?

Leslie smiled and approached me in his wheelchair, offering to help unload my recycling. The trunk was full of cardboard. I first said no thanks, but he persisted, saying that he likes to help and it makes him feel useful. Plus, he said he thought it was an honest-enough way to try to make a couple of dollars. I reconsidered and agreed. While we unloaded cardboard together, he shared that he had been really depressed about his spinal cord injury and was just trying day-by-day to stay positive and look for ways to be involved. That makes sense to me. We shook hands when we were through with our chore, I gave him $5 for his assistance and thanked him. He thanked me too. If Leslie is, in fact, homeless, I hope he is finding his own path to recovery.

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