One of the more haunting songs for me from the ’80s is Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise.” It came out in the mid-fall of 1989, and ended the ’80s as a #1 hit. It was also #1 to start the ’90s. For those who were younger than ten in late ’89, “Another Day In Paradise” was a song about chronic homelessness and the callousness of folk toward the homeless, in the UK and in the US.
There were at least three million people living on the streets between Battery Park in New York and the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California when Collins released his admonishment for the world and God to do something about what was then considered a serious crisis. It’s not Phil Collins’ best song. But if you gave a damn about people you saw every day, leather-faced, wearing tatters, obviously sick in body and broken in mind, then this song may have touched you in some way.
It touched me. Just sixteen months removed from five days of worry about my future, sleeping on a concrete slab, and washing up in public bathrooms, I was going to be moved by “Another Day In Paradise” anyway. Unlike most Americans, I cannot walk by someone homeless and not have it register that this could be me. I don’t give change every time a panhandler asks me. I’m not made of money. Sometimes, though, I do tear up, because seeing families without a place or home sitting on a sidewalk in the rain should make anyone sad or angry. Especially on days like today, when much of the nation is around 10ºF (-11 or -12ºC).
America had as many as five million homeless people during the height of the Great Recession, and as few as about 600,000 as recently as a year or two ago. But as with most social statistics, this is likely an underestimate. There are plenty of well-washed, well-kempt, and somewhat healthy folk in this country who don’t have a place of permanent residence. They bounce from friend to friend or from extended family member to caring loved one. They may have access to a bed or some halfway house or temporary housing. Still, they aren’t guaranteed a place to sleep, sit, or rest from one day, week, or month to the next. And this takes a toll.
It took a toll on my own family between April 1995 and March 1998, especially the first seven months after the 616 fire. I’m convinced it’s why my younger siblings struggled for years afterward to earn a high school diploma or GED. The disruption in their lives, of their dreams, in their peace of mind. It can and does drive many people to drink, drugs, and madness. It drives those who are with mental illness to the grave, like my former classmate Brandie Weston.
Yet our nation homeless-proofs itself with jagged spikes on stone walls, covered steam grates, and patrol officers hell-bent on making sure homeless Americans will not see one moment of sleep and rest. We treat our most vulnerable Americans as if they’re some form of contagion, a diseased sort of garbage that we’d love to put on a barge and dump in the middle of the Pacific.
America in our policies and our people visits indignities, malignancies, and wrath upon our homeless, whether military veterans, impoverished families, or mentally ill individuals. It’s what we do to anyone in our nation who isn’t a so-called winner. And if you’re a person of color who’s homeless, the best you can hope for is being near a college campus, where a steady stream of the well-off exploit your stories for A’s and writing jobs.
America does “to the least of us” whatever it can to take advantage, ridicule, hide, and even eliminate their existence. Proving once again that while America is a great nation, we are a horrible people. Phil Collins was right. We “can tell from the lines on her face” that America has forever calloused itself, human but often devoid of humanity.