The New Normal: Homelessness and Who We Are

Often, I find myself trying to convey to my students and others in their age group that the way things are are not what they have always been.

The most glaring and disturbing example of that is homelessness. I try to explain to them that legions of desperate, disheveled, lost, sometimes crazy individuals begging for food in major cities are not an inevitable fact of nature-like thunderstorms or the changes of the season. During my childhood and teens, they simply didn’t exist. Yes, there were a few of what were then called “bums”, “drunks” or (in Paris) “clochards”, but the apocalyptic scenes which we are assaulted with in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, downtown Los Angeles and New York City were unimaginable to us then. While they generally don’t argue with me, I often detect a certain eye-rolling disbelief in that they can imagine that what I’m saying is true.

That I’m not making it up is attested to in the Google n-gram registering the number of appearances of the word “homeless” in all sources. Just as I would have predicted, it begins to explode in the year 1980. Of course, this just means people were talking about homelessness more-not necessarily that it was more common. For that there is other statistical evidence. But as far as I’m concerned, this tells us everything we need to know.

Or nearly everything. Also revealing is extending the n-gram window rightwards past the default setting 2000 up to 2008. The number of mentions drops.

This does not mean, of course, that homeless is any less prevalent but that we stopped talking about it. That is, it became normalized as a fact of life. In other words,  we reconciled ourselves to the “new reality.” And, I would suggest, that in doing so we became still  human.

But that it was not always this way also tells us everything we need to know: it does not have to be.

We can and we will someday return to something like decency.

I genuinely believe this.

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