Grisham, John. "My Turn: Somewhere for Everyone." Newsweek 9 February 1998:14.

[1094 words]


In the small southern towns of my childhood no one talked about the homeless. In fact, the word "homeless" as a description for very poor people was never used. They were called hungry or needy, or they were winos or hobos, but never homeless. They, whoever and wherever they were, were rarely seen, and it was always assumed that someone else, probably a relative, would eventually take care of them.

Years later, during one of my first visits to New York City, I was accosted by an angry panhandler. Like the rest of the crowd, I tried to ignore him. But for some reason he chose to follow me. We exchanged insults for a block as my pace quickened, and I half expected him to produce a weapon of some sort. I escaped in the crowd, and he was left to torment someone else.

The incident did nothing to arouse my concern for the homeless, but it did make me notice and avoid street beggars. And since nearly everyone else avoided them, too, I was certain the problem would simply go away.

For a brief period back in the '80s, homelessness was the chic issue of the pretty people. It was worthy of galas and fund-raisers and cover stories. Now, as a cause, it has fallen on hard times, and the glamour crusades have moved to new fronts. But homelessness is a problem that is not going away. There are more homeless this year than last, and the number keeps growing. The new welfare overhaul our politicians are so proud of is sending more poor people into the streets. Many homeless people actually work, but not where they prefer. They are relegated to minimum-wage jobs with few hours and no benefits. The cost of housing is high, so they have a choice: sleep under a bridge or fight for a spot in a shelter.

About 40 percent of the homeless are substance abusers, and this number is expected to increase as rehab programs dwindle. (Don't be so quick to pass judgment and say, "Serves them right. If they're gonna abuse drugs and alcohol, they belong on the streets." Let's not kid ourselves. If teenagers from good families and executives with big jobs can succumb to alcohol and drugs, what can we expect from people who live on the streets?) Many of the homeless are mothers with children, and shelters are not always equipped to handle them. Tonight many thousands of children will find a place to sleep without a decent bed, shelter or roof. They will sleep in the trunks of old cars, and in parks I wouldn't walk through in daylight, and in abandoned buildings in inner-city combat zones.

There is now a new and growing threat. Some cities are in the midst of an effort to criminalize homelessness. Attempts have been made to outlaw panhandling, sleeping on park benches and sidewalks, eating near fountains and leaving personal property on public property. Some of these ill- advised ordinances have been struck down, so the cities selectively enforce existing laws. A panhandler may be charged with blocking pedestrian traffic or loitering. A wino sleeping in a park may be charged with public drunkenness. A homeless man relieves himself in an alley and he's charged with public exposure.

Sweeps have become routine in some cities. The police target certain areas of a city. They remove those who are begging or otherwise appear unsightly and simply deposit them into another, less fashionable section of town. Or they arrest them and grind them through the overworked criminal justice system.

Everyone has to be somewhere. The problem of homelessness is not solved by removing the victims from our view. The issue borders on the brink of hopelessness.

I didn't know this a year ago. I had other causes and concerns and supported other charities. Then inspiration hit. Ideas for novels often fall from the sky, striking like lightning and causing sleep loss. (Others take years to piece together.) I thought of a story about a young lawyer who has a violent encounter with a street person, and who survives, and for the first time in his busy young life stops and notices the less fortunate. In short order he becomes a street lawyer, a public-interest advocate for the poor. Adding a few of the usual twists and turns, I could make the story work. Problem was, I knew nothing about street law.

In the spring of '97 my research took me into the world of the homeless. I made the two-hour drive from my comfortable home in the Virginia countryside to the streets of D.C., and there I met real poverty lawyers. I went to shelters where people lived packed together, their meager assets locked away in small trunks. I met women whose children had been taken away because they couldn't feed and clothe them. I met young mothers still clinging to their kids, terrified they would lose their shelter space and land in the streets. In a church basement I chatted with street people happy to be eating a warm meal, most of them uncertain where they would sleep in a few hours. I almost froze on a park bench one night as I tried to strike up a conversation with a homeless man who suspected I was from the IRS. I talked politics with a panhandler near the Capitol. He finally asked me to leave because I was hurting his business. I listened to hymns being sung at a women's center as it closed for the day. The ladies said their goodbyes and drifted away, half of them headed for shelters, the rest destined for alleys and parks. I interviewed volunteers and social workers, and I'm still amazed at their compassion.

I cried only once. I was in a soup kitchen one night, trying but failing to appear inconspicuous, when a young mother rushed in with three children, an infant and twin boys. She was running from something, but no one seemed to care. Her boys were about 4 dressed in rags and bone thin, and they attacked a tray of peanut butter sandwiches as if they hadn't seen food in a month. A volunteer fixed them a plate with cookies, an apple, a cup of vegetable soup and more sandwiches. They ate furiously, their eyes darting in all directions as if someone might stop them. They stuffed themselves because they knew the uncertainties of tomorrow.

Little street soldiers, preparing for the coming battles. Is this the Third World, I asked myself? Or is this America?