Homeless For The Holidays

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 our midst.

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... TW

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