Friday, August 18, 2006

Homelessness: the followup

This is the second of two related entries. If you haven't read the original column on homelessness that I published in yesterday's London Free Press, click here first.

I always love hearing from readers. Even if they're vehemently, diametrically opposed to my published position, the very fact that a total stranger would take the time to let me know what he/she thinks about my writing is very cool indeed.

Being a journalist in a free and democratic society is a blessing and a right that others have fought and died for. So when my inbox shows e-mail from a reader, it makes my day.

A reader wrote me this morning in response to my piece on homelessness. I normally don't cross-post reader comments to my blog - I would rather they visit my site on their own volition, where they are free to participate or not participate as they see fit. But I'm going to make an exception this time out.

Why? Well, firstly, the person wrote anonymously. This is incredibly rare. Most readers have the courage to attach a name to their words. I know who I'm dealing with, just as they do. It strikes me as cowardly to write to a columnist without saying who you are. Maybe it's just me.

Second, the message was so devoid of empathy and caring that I truly wondered if this person understood how pervasive homelessness can be. It touches even those who think all street people are self-inflicted alcoholic bums (overtly obtuse language deliberate.) Your comments underneath the original posting are ample and eloquent evidence of this.

Here's what my reader wrote:
ummm .. yeah .. anyone of us could be Colin ... if we were irresponsible ALCOHOLICS, who had no regard for our jobs, spouses, and children. Colin's problem is not housing. Colin's problem is that he is a substance abuser who did not bother to straighten himself out when he hit rock bottom. What about Colin's family? They lost their home because of his reckless behaviour. Perhaps THEY would have qualified for the affordable housing you discuss in your article. Maybe his son would be raised in a stable environment, and find the resources and confidence to enjoy a post secondary education. Maybe one day that son would become a tax paying contributor to our society.

Canadians are famous for cleaning up the dirt others leave behind. When will we get serious about circumventing our problems and spending more time and
energy on intervention?

Simply putting more roofs over the heads of alcoholics, crack addicts, schizophrenics, and deviants is not the answer. Our tax dollars fund their homes, do they return the favour? Do they devote any of their time to community-based services? They should, they have nothing BUT time.

How much sympathy can one conjur up for members of society who offer nothing, but expect all the creature comforts that we tax-paying citizens
work hard for.

Hope his son turns out better than his deadbeat dad. For all our sakes.
Here's how I responded:
Thank you for your note. I always appreciate hearing from readers.

You write as if he became an alcoholic by choice. Children of alcoholics - which Colin was - are at significantly greater risk of becoming alcoholics as well. There is a genetic predisposition to substance abuse that has been rather thoroughly documented by the scientific community.

My entire point in writing this column was to illustrate how precariously close so many of us are to homelessness. It doesn't take much to slide from the world of the haves to the world of the have-nots. Colin's tragedy was alcoholism. Yours could be something entirely different.

I invite you to follow the discussion on my web log ( As you can see from the comments, regular folks from all walks of life all admit having been precariously close to - or over - the homelessness edge at some points in their lives. I hope you have the courage to share of yourself in this forum, and I invite you to do just that.

I hope you're never in need of assistance from the broader community. And if you do, may those who sacrifice of themselves to help you have more empathy than you seem to exhibit in your anonymously-penned note.

All the best,

Carmi Levy
Your turn: I know I was a little more harsh in my response than I normally would be with someone who disagrees with me. Do you think I was out of line? How would you respond to a letter like this?


vanx said...

My policy is pretty much to let people bray.

Homelessness terrifies me because I could end up homeless for any number of reasons. And it usually is the result of a number of reasons. Nobody is exempt, which is why society as a whole must be compassionate and our institutions must be able to help those at risk. None of this disregards the need for people to take responsibility for themselves and their families.

Shan said...

While some people who can help themselves don't, there are many people who simply find themselves unable to help themselves. Alcoholism is a major problem. It's something where other people have to go out of their way to assist the person, as often they just aren't in a condition to help themselves. It doesn't mean people aren't accountable for what they do to their families or themselves, but it's not just about our empathy. We should be concerned for other human beings, if they need help, we need to help them. Even if you could prove that their status was their fault entirely, it doesn't change our responsibility to help them out.

David said...

i could have been your anaon writer, carmi, but thankfully I was not. I lived in SF too many years and "knew" to many homeless to be deeply affected by it anymore.
Some of them choose it, there is no ONE type of homeless person, nor ONE best repsonse to the situation. I commend you for taking it on in print.

Prego said...

You don't want me to have at 'im...

I don't think you were harsh at all, but then my consideration of sensitivity, as you can imagine, is relatively non-existent.

I am envious of your politesse. Chances are you've never gotten arrested or fired - thus, barring any unknown substance abuse problems on your part (I have none to speak of) I vote me more likely to go the Colin route than you.

Keep up the good work.

Last Girl On Earth said...

I think you were totally in line with what you said to this guy. First off, I have a problem with anyone who won't leave his or her name when ranting about ANYTHING. Anonymity discounts any rant, as far as I'm concerned.

I live in a city where homeless people approach me every day. I try not to judge. It's often very hard to look the other way, but over the years, I have made the realization that you can't help everyone. BUT every morning, when I go out, I put my spare change in my pocket and at least give what little I can. Most importantly, I try to always look a homeless person in the eye. Yes, there are nut jobs out there who are very mentally unstable, but I feel like people who have managed to become homeless don't deserve to be treated like vermin. They are still human beings, and deserve to be treated as such.

I hope you and your family are having a great weekend, Carmi!

Star said...

I think your response was an honest one. I thnk the annonymous writer waw honest about their feelings as well, although it would have had more validty had they signed their name to it. I live in a larg urban city, and homelessness if definately an issue. The hardest part for me personally to understand is that there was no one to stand between these people and the situation they nd up in. It is hard for me to imagine a life where no one else, family or friend, would care enough to stop this from happening.

keda said...

i think what you said and did was fine babe. and good. just as the homeless (for whatever reason) need help to take responsibility for themselves so do narrow minded selfish people.
if we just ignore ignorance those people will never learn and change will never come.
alcoholics need to be taught that what they do is damaging and find a better way to be. as does the person who was ashamed to admit his mean spirited and ignorant feelings by hiding his identity.
both show self loathing. and that is more dangerous than any drink.

i btw, was made homeless after my landlord started sexually harrasing me at the end of summer term at uni, when my grant and housing benefits had been lost due to a council mix up (they were eventually paid 8 months too late). although i worked 2 jobs throughout university this was not enough to pay all the tuition, rent, transprt. materials and bills alone. so i was homeless for 2 months until i found a squat and did it up. meeting with the local housing authority and setting up a tennants group which cleaned up the estate we moved to of drug addicts and criminals.
but then i was lucky enough to be sassy, not to have been raped or worse whilst slepping rough or drinking and taking drugs to excess. i am lucky that i have no (or not many lets say :)) emotional or mental health issues which predispose me to such downward spirals.
sadly many people do. and as the anonymous man mentioned scitzophrenics... do we really want them out on our streets where they can get worse and end up murdering? hell no! we want them taken care of and kept safe so they dont impact us and our children badly.
and i for one would be more than happy to pay taxes and work to help make that happen. hell it makes more sense than wasting money on bombs.
sorry. long rant.. edit me iof you like. :)

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I think you wewre incredibly civil Carmi...that person is scary beyond words because of what appears to be "lack of empathy"...lack of feelings that go beyond a cynicism that is killing!
I agree that anyone of us could end up himeless for any number of reasons, including your Anony. is a very frightening thought that the line is drawn so finely, you know? I thought your answer was wonderful and your column too...As always you are so caring and thoughtful, Carmi.

Tabor said...

Yes, some people are their own worst enemies and bring on their own failures when they could be more successful. But this is only some people and we have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and provide them with as much support and help as we can. Sometimes along the way they see the light and we help save a soul. Others just need that extra help and they can move forward ont their own. And, no, you were not harsh...just pretty straightforward I'd say.

Terri said...

First of all...I totally agree with you on the lack of a name by the commenter. Let's agree to disagree is fine...but tell me WHO you are and we'll go from there.
It sounded to me like the commenter was very angry and perhaps rightly so. But being angry shouldn't cancel out empathy.
As for your response...bravo to you! Very diplomatic and intelligent. I couldn't have said it better myself. Having done a paper on alcoholism in college, I've never felt it was something anybody "aspires" to. And the worst part of it is the ripple effect and all those affected by it. But...that said, I still think it leaves room for empathy on our part.

Ms Mac said...

I was taught to never say anything I wasn't brave enough to put my name to. Anonymous opinions are rarely worth the time we take to read them, never mind respond. That takes care of the anonymous part.

Anonymous in this case is obviously quite ignorant of the plight of those affected by (directly or indirectly) alcoholism. It's so easy to sit back in judgement on those dealing with addiction without taking any time to consider the situation properly. Either that or Anonymous has been affected very badly by someone close to him/her in the throes of their own adiction and has chosen to deal with it in an angry and unproductive way.

I once had a friend who, in desperation, went to our local council to ask for emergency housing for her and her family. The events leading to my friend's predicament could never have been blamed on anything that my friend and/or her family had done. She was told by the local council that she would be placed on the waiting list for housing but not to expect miracles, "We have 37 families living in their cars in this suburb, they're all on the waiting list too." This happened in Australia, 2002. Simply unacceptable. Homelessness is an issue which absolutely MUST be dealt and made a priority the world over.

In my life, I have been labelled a bleeding heart liberal. May be so, but I hope that my heart never hardens to the plight of those less fortunate than me.

Blond Girl said...

Good morning, Carmi. Michele sent me, now that I'm back into the computing world in our new home. As you say, we are all very close to homelessness at any time. We've moved (and that's a story in and of itself that you'll need to check out at my blog) but niether of us have jobs yet. As a confirmed security girl, this is freaking me out. I am almost gauranteed a good part-time job, but nothing has come up for my husband yet, in spite of repeated applications, resumes, etc. I found myself applying for free or reduced price lunches for my daughter at school. This is an eye opener for me. I've always enjoyed the security of knowing that when I work, I reap. Now I see that sometimes you don't reap; or you reap what you don't expect. I'm glad we don't have the added burden of alchohol or drugs in the scenario. With the kind of pressure and stress we've been under the last few weeks, their pull might be undeniable...

Glad to be back, Carmi. Thank you for reminding me again to be thankful even in the midst of unsurity.

Courtney said...

I think your response was very appropriate. I think it would have been out of character for you to have started on a rant that matched your reader's tone and lack of empathy.

I'm actually here via Michele today.

Diva said...

You were not out of line at all. Actually, I think your response was perfect.

Pickalish said...

I would say that personal has had a personal experience with either alcholism/addiction/mental illness.....someone or some situation has hurt them and they are very angry. That's what I see, anyhow. Most people can see that homelessness isn't it's own issue, but rather the effect of some other more hidden problem/illness. I hope whoever wrote that can one day have enough peace in their own life to offer a little sympathy to those suffering. How sad.

Joe said...

I think your response was very reasonable and totally in line. I think you brought out some great points. Very good post and article!

Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier.

CanEragon said...

For the Record My name is Jeremy and I am also an ALCOHOLIC !! I've been clan and sober now almost 5 years by the grace of God and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I've seen men and women loose everything to the disease of alcoholism, and if said writer had any compassion he would not have written what he did. You pompous ass. Colin had a sickness, do you not see that? Jesus, the gaul of some people.

Canada has a great system of recovery, yet CANADA on the whole does not have enough money to maintain and staff "properly" rehab centers, AND IN FACT they are closing more detox centers in Montreal as we speak.

So getting clean and sober must now go through the rooms of AA and not a formal detox, the remaining centers have at least a 1 year waiting list.

You talk about prevention, how do we teach prevention when the government cuts funds to crucial social programs like drug and hiv prevention? How come Mr. Haroer did not go the the AIDS convention in Toronto? Oh BTW I am HIV+ as well !! Fancy that !! How do we care for the sick when Canada doesnt think that they are important enough to appropriate right amounts of money to those so muchly needed resources? HUH, answer that question!

Hows about a little compassion, or did you skip class the day they taught that lesson?

Homelessness, come read my (Hugry, Angry Drunk and homless) post on my blog at


Come sit in Cabot Square by my house and see the minions of drunk and addicted aboriginals who have no home, no money and no where to go.

See the kids on street corners begging for food. One cannot walk 50 meters on any sidewalk in downtown Montreal without walking INTO or BY a homeless person - all the way down through the village.

Homelesness IS a Candadian problem from the Inuit and First Nations peoples to the children who criss cross Canada yearly to the poor elderly who sleep in Metro Kiosks to the many who gave up hope in living lost because of drug, alcohol, or sexual addictions. Which gives rise to the spread of HIV via sexual and drug transmission.

At least I hit a higher bottom than Colin, I didn't loose the house the wife and the kids and every stitch of my dignity. Maybe we should all be greatful that we are not Colin, having to rebuild from NOTHING!!!

God have mercy on the compassionless.

But for the grace of God go I, I could be as stupid and ignorant as YOU.

God grant me serenity !!

That's how I roll...

moon said...

I didn't find you hard on him at all. Too even have taken the time to respond with precise , firm but polite conviction is beyond what most would have done.
Pity how some can rant and rave with the presumption of having something to say yet not have the fortitude to take responsibility for their own opinion...How cowardly to be anonymous!

Tia said...

What fabulous discussion this is bringing on! For that, we can thank anonymous. And you. When I choose to give - in any way - at that moment, I let go of my attachment to that giving. So whetherr the person is a "crook" abusing the system or someone who truly needs it (and who am I to judge that?) - it's their karma. It's great if anonymous has had such a blessed life that they've never had to face humility in a way that a homeless person might... Most of us aren't that lucky.

Paige said...

No you were not, in any means, out of line. For most folks the difference between being in a home and being homeless is a couple of paychecks. How many people can pay the rent, food, utilities plus gas these days for 2 months with out a job.
I have been homeless, not by choice, and not because of drugs or drink or any other habit. I hope and work hard not to be there again. But who knows what awaits us all.

persia said...

Anon was trying to say that just putting housing over homeless heads is a waste of money -- and if that is the only effort, I wholeheartedly agree.
The homeless are human, deserving our help in times of crisis, just as we would hope to be helped if we end up in the same situation.
The key is that at the same time as providing funds for such things as housing, those tax dollars should also be spent on resolving the root problem. Get them help for the additictions. Get them help for the mental illnesses. Put a plan in action to direct them to better times, to self-sufficiency. And the few that are left, refusing help, well at least we gave it a proper try.

margalit said...

I have almost no empathy for those who pretend that homelessness is the fault of the person suffering and not the fault of a capitalist society that makes it so hard for the poor to find and keep shelter.

My family and I were homeless for almost a year when we moved back from California to MA. I could not work due to my disability, something that is genetic and completely unavoidable. My children were 9 years old and also unable to work. I had been out of work due to the tech bubble for more than a year in CA and had spent all of my savings (6 months income banked, just as the experts say) plus my kids college funds, plus my 401k and all my additional investments. ALL of it was gone. There was absolutely nothing left. I walked away from foreclosure and came back to Boston knowing that I couldn't work anymore, and that I would have to rely on social services.

I lived on welfare for a year. I got NO subsidized housing, even as a disabled single mother, because the lists in MA are over 20 YEARS long. I still do not have subsidized housing 5 years later. For welfare I got a whopping $408/month. The average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in my area is $1800. We finally found a place for $1550 after 9 months of homelessness, livng with friends. The place was illegal, had mice, was a complete rattrap, and the owner was a slumlord. It took us 2 years go get out of there into decent housing.

My salary in CA, before I lost the 3rd job in a row due to the tech implosion, was $140,000. I have a PhD from Harvard University in ergonomics. I've worked since I was 16 years old, supporting myself since I was 18. I paid for ALL of my college and graduate school by myself. All of it. Not one penny from my parents, who never gave me a cent once I turned 18.

So having been in a desperate situation, and now living precariously on the edge of homelessness every month, I have no patience for people who don't understand how this could happen to them, too. None.

patricia said...

There is nothing wrong with how you responded, Carmi. I would have done the same. Though perhaps not as politely as you!

And regarding the homeless problem, there is, obviously, many sides to every single person's homeless story. Anyone with any intelligence, insight and heart would know that.

Finally, regarding anonymous comments....feh. I've no use for them. Especially those who respond in a hostile, rude manner. If you cannot stand behind what you say by using your real name and a working email and/or web site, then you are nothing more than a pitiful coward.

Shane said...

ahh tough topic. It is sad to see homeless people - I think many of 'em are beyond helping themselves -- and possibly beyond being helped at all -- which is the true tragedy

Vickie said...

That guy is a dickhead Carmi. Sorry to use name-calling, but I hate people who hide behind anonymity and then diss underpriveledged people. As Ani Difrance so eloquently says in one of my favourite tunes "If you're not helping, then get out of my way" - something like that anyway.

Vickie said...

PS) Michelle sent me! Although I visit anyway.

Carmi said...

Thanks, everyone, for turning a simple column into an important discussion on an issue that clearly touches us all. When a Harvard PhD can struggle alongside other incredibly accomplished members of society, the old stereotype of the self-inflicted alcoholic bum begins to show some additional dimension.

I received another e-mail from my anonymous correspondent. Still anonymous. Still an absolute bastion of empathy and caring. Still a coward for not having the guts to put a name to the opinion. The stated excuse: "for the welfare of my family."

I'm sure the zillions of journalists who lay it on the line every day and publish infinitely more thoughtful work than this ghostlike example of anti-courage think about their families, too. Then they once again deliberately sign their name on the dotted line.

Now I know why newspapers don't publish material from letter-writers who refuse to identify themselves. Cowards have no place in the journalistic process. Here's what my newfound anonymous friend - who had the gall to "give me permission" to publish this tripe - had to say.

As if anyone needs permission when they don't identify themselves.


From: [Sender's e-mail deleted]
To: carmilevy AT msn DOT com
Subject: rebuttal
Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2006 16:48:18

How convenient for you, Carmi, to have a personal fan club to defend your opinion and validate your position on my anonymity. I wonder about the demographics of your readers, who in my humble opinion, are too young to have anything to lose, or too indigent themselves to be critical of the Canadian system of social welfare. Each and everyone of your cheerleaders have completely missed my point of "prevention and circumvention", instead, were redirected to the mute point of anonymity and cynicism on my part. Good journalism, Carmi.

And speaking of journalism, I would have retained some respect for you, if you had solicited my consent to publish my private response to you on your "blog". I realize you made an exception, just for me, and I am flattered. You must rarely get responses from readers who disagree with your opinion, and I know it must get boring having a fan club merely rally your stance all the time. I really appreciate the way you directed your patriots to focus on my cowardly anonymity and my utter "devoid empathy" -- it was a great way to stir the pot in your direction. "Ample and eloquent evidence" -- your description of the responses you received against my private comment to you -- that's the bone your dogs are chasing -- great training, very well done

The reason for my anonymity is simple. I like to truly speak my mind with the utmost honesty I can evoke without the fear of reprisals from every kook with a computer. Get it, "babe" ?? This is my freedom and liberation to respond in an intellectual manner, where my identity would reduce me to one of the masses who read micro-political, mindless blurbs of rubbish -- and shrug it off without ever getting their point across. I have worked too hard to achieve my goals to risk losing anything. You call me a coward, I feel responsible for thinking about the welfare of my family. If you want to be taken seriously as a journalist with an opinion, you'd better get used to this. Or would a cutesy psydenouym help you deal with this unusual issue.

Did you notice that all the responses to my private letter were extremely judgemental and thoroughly lacked any preposed solution to our homeless problem in canada? Wasn't that the point of your original article? I suggested better treatment for the problems that make our citizens homeless in the first place. Isn't that a more constructive approach to solving our problems? It's high time our Canadian gov't got pro-active and not reactive. About alot of issues, I may add. Including our ever increasing lack of financial and emotional support to our country's orphaned children. Orphaned by substance abusers and deadbeats. Did you ever even bother to follow up on Colin's son? Did he manage to break the viscious cycle of genetic predisposition to alcohol because of community support? I hope so, there's my hard-working tax dollars put to good use, for once. (and yes, Carmi, I am aware of that ancient discovery of alcoholism as a disease). Just because I reserve my empathy for the hopefuls, for the next generation, for the productive or willing-to-become-productive, doesn't mean I don't have empathy. It means I have a better understanding of the bigger problem and chose to be constructive about it.

Shame on me? No, shame on you, Carmi. You have such a rich opportunity as a journalist to enlighten the public about real solutions to issues in Canada.

This time you have my permission to post my letter in your "blog", I saw nothing compelling or interesting enough there to prompt me to join your club as a contributor.

Carmi again. There will be no further response to this correspondent.

Sandy said...

Carmi, the sad thing is people filled with that much unhappiness and perhaps even hate, won't be swayed by common sense. You wrote what you needed to for you. If you know that it likely did little to impact anonymous cold-heart then the letter is fine.

Ignorance doesn't bother me. What bothers me are the ignorant who talk as if they are not. Being uninformed isn't bad; it's be caustic while remaining uninformed that is the issue.

Carmi, really, you were nicer than I would have been. Then again, I am a red-head with little patience. ;)