Photos by Hector Acuņa
AS WE CELEBRATE this Thanksgiving, yet another in a series
of endless debates is underway in the City of Tucson about just
how we should deal with the chronic problem of the homeless in
On one side of the current discussion are people who say the
city should offer more programs, more shelters, more workfare
to help the homeless help themselves. Only by creating additional
opportunities for self-improvement, goes this argument, do we
have any hope of reducing the grim statistics here.
On the other side are the folks who think Tucson is already doing
too much for these people, and thereby worsening the problem here.
They complain that bums from around the nation already see our
town as a sort of Disneyland for the homeless, with plenty of
sunshine and free food.
When the city-funded Toole Avenue feeding site recently placed
some rules on those who show up to receive free meals, this faction
notes, about half the operation's regular clients chose to stay
away. Those rules covered such common-sense subjects as the need
for sobriety, and the individual's responsibility to look for
work. Furthermore, the critics add, recent surveys indicate only
about half the homeless here are actively looking for work.
Tucson is currently at a crossroads of sorts, observers say.
Powerful staffers in the city's Community Services Department
are grabbing for additional federal money to serve the homeless,
even as some members of the City Council are saying more stringent
rules promoting self-responsibility are needed before the homeless
get more freebies.
The resulting pressure, some predict, will drive city staffers
seeking to enlarge homeless programs to rely on private charities
and churches, thus driving more soup kitchens and shelters into
more local neighborhoods, further depressing the quality of life
for Tucson's poorer tax-paying residents.
Hey, nobody ever said doing the right thing was easy, much less
figuring out what the right thing is in the first place.
ACCORDING TO a February 1998 census conducted by UA sociology
professor Dave Snow, on any given day between 2,400 and 3,000
homeless people are living on the streets of Tucson. Obviously
more come here in the pleasant winter months, and far fewer hang
around in the heat of the summer. But they're always among us,
like shabby students wandering around some invisible, transitory
campus of the School of Hard Knocks.
Please understand: We're not saying the homeless are necessarily
the most unfortunate among us. Roughly 22 percent of our fellow
Tucsonans are desperately poor these days, and many are ill and
elderly, their lives fraying badly along the edges.
All we're saying is that despite all the debate and hand-wringing,
the homeless--these ragged travelers who sleep in the underpasses
and arroyos, who fill our city's shelters and carry their dirty
bedrolls wherever they go--really aren't so different from the
rest of us. They aren't so different, except perhaps for a failed
marriage and a job layoff here, a stubborn lazy streak there,
alcoholism, mental illness, depression, drug addiction, a powerful
wanderlust, or any of the other myriad complications with which
birth and fate and time--and, in all honesty, we ourselves--see
fit to test our mettle in this life.
They are human beings after all, and even if most of us will
never experience life on the streets, we are all of us but gradations
in the spectrum of humanity.
And so it is that we offer these photographs of Tucson's homeless
this Thanksgiving season, not as objects of pity, nor as objects
of scorn, but simply as portraits of our brothers and sisters.
We believe this holiday is a suitable time to admit that however
the current debate over the homeless is resolved, this town, in
ways that perhaps most of us will never fathom, is their town
too, whether we like it or not; and that this life, which is inexorably
ebbing from each of us with every breath, is, when all is said
and done, a shared celebration, precious to rich and poor alike.
It's also a suitable time to look beyond issues and statistics,
to open our minds and hearts, however briefly, to the possibility
that our lives here may be enriched in inexplicable ways by every
single person who walks the streets of Tucson, with or without
a battered shopping cart.
For the opportunity to live and let live, let us now give thanks...