Some People Think We Have No Obligations to the Homeless. Here’s Why Those People are Wrong

What the New York Post got wrong about the New York Times' moving portrait of homelessness.

Photo | Shutterstock.com

Photo | Shutterstock.com

There was a beautifully written piece published in The New York Times on December 9th that painted a very poignant, solemn, and frustrating picture of homelessness. It was an exhaustive read, and an uncomfortable one, as writer Andrea Elliot went out of her way to paint a picture of poverty as seen through a child’s eyes.

The story was about an 11-year-old girl named Dasani, for the simple luxury of bottled water, which her mother, who has a history of substance abuse, could not obtain. The story goes on to describe her family’s home (if the word has any accuracy) in the Auburn Family Residence, a city-run shelter for the city’s homeless.

Dasani and her family are nestled in the newly-trendy Fort Greene neighborhood, and yet they are miles away from its plush accommodations. Mice run within the walls. An infant is kept warm by a strategically placed hairdryer.

I saw this piece trickle down my Twitter timeline again and again, each person passing it along with a RT about how arresting they found the account to be. As I read, I took note of the temperature outside and felt helpless.

With a piece written so vividly, it’s hard not to empathize with its subjects. It was with great surprise, then, that I found the New York Post’s callous and curt response — signed not by some contrarian columnist but by the paper’s editorial board — to the piece:

“Yes, the family’s housing has problems, including mice and reports of sexual assaults and other crimes. But the Times and Elliott, like much of the liberal establishment, seem to think it’s the city’s job to provide comfortable lives to outrageously irresponsible parents. In this case, that’s a couple with a long history of drug problems and difficulty holding jobs.

Something’s wrong with that picture.”

While I know better than to take The Post to heart, I did find this exceptionally disturbing. In the cited passage alone, the paper’s editorial board dismisses sexual assault as a casualty of war for the homeless. Something to be expected, even as a condition of poverty.

This refrain is doled time and again to those who are less fortunate. Despite statistical evidence about the cyclical nature of poverty, media and political pundits sit on high and declare that the penance of being poor — of failing to tie up their bootstraps — is victim-blaming and social isolation. Nevermind that there are some working, middle and upper class people with “a long history of drug problems and difficulty holding jobs.”

What’s more, the editorial board mischaracterized Elliot’s empathy as a permissive tone toward the irresponsible behaviors of Dasani’s parents. No, it’s not the city’s job to provide “comfortable lives” for the homeless, but a sanitary place to rest one’s head is a start.

Dasani’s story wasn’t about being a liberal or a conservative. It was about a little girl being lost in a world that is not of her doing. And that should be enough to make anyone want to reach in and help.

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