We need a new word for “homeless.” In fact, we need a half dozen new words, because that word, originally an adjective, as in a “homeless man” has become a noun, and, heaven help us, it is a collective noun: “the homeless.”
Too often we toss it around like it applies to everyone who doesn’t have a roof over his or her head, or a bed to sleep in. But, in truth, it has a list of definitions almost as long as another collective noun we toss around like a Nerf ball: “community.”
At one end of this stretchable word “homeless” there might be a family of four, new in town to start mom or dad’s new job and thought they had enough upfront money for “first-and-last” rent but hadn’t realized what has happened to housing costs here.
Or, at the other end, someone like the poor soul my colleague Chris Smith wrote about last week who has lost her children and all hope to drugs. Or the 50-something man or woman, who looks 80, wandering the streets shouting curse words into the darkness, someone who would be in a government-run care facility — if we still had such a place.
And in between those three near-classic examples there are many more descriptions involving not only drugs, alcohol or untreated depression, but also a fierce dedication to independence. There are those who can’t imagine going to sleep anywhere without that old dog that has been with them since they both were pups, and who is their only family. And there are those who truly love to sleep “under the stars.”
All of those things we call “homelessness.”
And, while there are a lot of people working on it, there is not, in the foreseeable future, a clear path to a solution.
We are pretty sure why it is becoming a bigger and bigger problem — first, because our city and region, like the problem itself, are “becoming bigger and bigger” and because it costs more with every passing day to put roofs over our heads.
There is a quotation from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” engraved on the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., where America’s past is stored.
It reads: “What’s past is prologue.”
That means we’d best pay attention to what has already happened to better understand what’s happening in the here and now.
WE LOOK to our community’s past, hoping to find answers, or, at the very least, perspective.
The quest takes us to the old books in the county’s archives.
The arrest ledgers are a small part of the rooms full of records carefully stored in a 1940s building that was once the kitchen of the state’s Los Guilicos School for Delinquent Girls.
(We don’t use the word delinquent anymore except to describe unpaid property taxes, but that’s what they called kids who broke the law in those “good old days.”)
I went there last week with Katherine Rinehart, the county archivist and manager of the History Library in Santa Rosa, to thumb through the proof that the homeless, like the poor, have always been with us. Pick a year, any year. I chose 1894.