California Forum

Our throwaway society casts a wider net for the homeless

The homeless on Sacramento’s streets are one of the more visible signs of a throwaway society. It’s easy to discard those with mental and physical problems or debilitating addictions, just as you might toss out an empty can of tuna or some outmoded electronic gadget.

It’s misleading to think of the homeless as an isolated phenomenon, though, especially as our throwaway society casts a wider and wider net, reaching beyond those who are easily disposable to more skilled and educated workers.

Technology is displacing factory workers, secretaries and travel agents, moving up and down the socio-economic ladder with grim egalitarian determination. In a recent article, the Atlantic Monthly noted the prospect of “automation high and low – robots in the operating room and behind the fast-food counter.”

This doesn’t mean we’re all going to be pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk, but it probably means diminished pay and shorter hours for the average worker. New jobs pay 23 percent less than those lost during the great recession, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and IHS Global Insight. The portion of U.S. economic output paid to American workers is the lowest on record.

Kate Towson is on the frontlines of this economic dislocation. The Sacramento nonprofit agency she works for, Women’s Empowerment, tries to provide a soft landing for those who have, as she puts it, “come tumbling down out of the middle class.”

Towson reports a huge upsurge in women coming through her door who say they’re homeless for the first time, a jump from 15 percent before the recession to 53 percent now.

The agency, with considerable success, finds jobs for the newly laid-off or victims of domestic violence, and gets them restarted in education programs.

Still, it’s a tough scramble getting back into the middle class, a climb up a slope littered with loose rock – it often involves working multiple part-time jobs, making two or three bus trips a day while juggling college classes and dealing with high rents and child care costs.

“Thunderstruck” is how one longtime advocate for the homeless, Mark Merin, describes those who’ve just lost their jobs and their homes. They’re the ones who, looking dazed but still dressed in clean, decent-looking clothes, wander into the Loaves & Fishes courtyard to get their first free meal. Some of them are able to pick themselves up, as the old Sinatra song goes, and get back in the race – by taking it one step at a time.

Four mornings a week, 35 homeless men and women are bused from Loaves & Fishes to Foodlink, a nonprofit agency at the old Army Depot at Fruitridge and Power Inn Road. They’re paid $11 an hour to put together food boxes for victims of drought and fire throughout the state.

“You can’t imagine how empowering it is for these homeless folks to be helping other people,” says Margaret Healey, who runs the nonprofit with her husband, John. Many of them, she notes, have used the work as a first step toward getting long-term employment and housing. According to Sister Libby Fernandez, who runs Loaves & Fishes, there are 200 homeless people on a waiting list for the Foodlink jobs.

Dan Delany, the Loaves & Fishes founder who passed away recently, had a deep, all-embracing love for the poor and homeless, believing in their basic decency. As a man of God and a former priest, he saw the image of Christ in them.

Not all of us can rise to that level of understanding and compassion. But our throwaway society, with its wider and wider net, will make it increasingly difficult to draw a line between us and them.

Tim Holt reported on the homeless and stayed in their shelters when he wrote for a weekly newspaper, the Suttertown News, in Sacramento. He now lives in Dunsmuir and is the editor of the quarterly North State Review.