The golf course behind my house was empty last week.
It must have been the six inches of snow, howling wind, frozen pond and power outages that kept them home.
As I looked to our bird feeder, I followed the trail of tiny scratches on top of the snow. The birds were out looking for morsels among the snow.
We saw a larger set of prints that my wife, Anna, decided were rabbit tracks, and we watched as some birds that we have not seen in a while came to feed.
A bit later, Anna came out of her office laughing.
She had put a little bird feeder on the window outside her office and is often treated with cardinals and other birds of which I am unfamiliar.
There is this one squirrel who has found the bird feeder and climbs in with his whole body and sorts through the seeds for the sunflower seeds.
The feeder was about empty, so Anna looked up from the work she was doing and came eye to eye with a squirrel with a snow-covered snout. She said it was as if he was saying to her, “Come put some seeds in this feeder.”
The polar vortex that brought unprecedented weather events to much of the nation last week was a challenging time for the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields.
Those of us with homes had to put on more clothes and many had to endure long stretches without power and the cold indoor temperatures this caused
When we did have power, we had to lower the thermostat and keep our electrical usage to a minimum because of the statewide strain on the electric power grid.
Yet, at the end of the day, most of us were dry and relatively warm, with a comfortable place to sleep.
While it was difficult for everyone in the storm’s path, due to widespread power outages and water shortages, it was an especially challenging time for the homeless.
Right now, more than half a million people are homeless around the United States. That does not include a rather fixed amount of 1.5 million living in temporary shelters around the nation.
So, we have about two million people who are unhoused in a nation of 331 million people. I have to ask why that is so.
We are not an impoverished nation. In fact, we are the largest economy in the world. We lead the world in innovation, technologies, diverse products and services.
We are a wealthy nation. However, tragically, that wealth is not distributed equally.
Over the years, in recognition of such disparity, America has become one of the most charitable nations. For the most part, we have not missed those gifts, either within our country or at catastrophic sites of natural disasters.
It is with that background that I turned my attention to the homeless in our midst, focusing here on the state of Texas where I live. Yet, similar circumstances would likely be found in analyzing the history of other states.
The current predicament has several causes.
Deinstitutionalization was one of the movements in the 1960s when state governments shut down or seriously limited the budgets of state mental health hospitals.
Some do not link homelessness, which increased significantly in the 1980s, with the closing of mental health hospitals in the late 1960s. However, I see a correlation.
The community mental health center movement started in the 1970s with states having to fund the work. In Texas, as a matter of custom and law, CMHC was constantly underfunded. From the very beginning it was so.
Texas also did something else when they refined the law by making it a felony to lash out, hit or attack a law enforcement officer. By the time I made my way to Polunsky Prison’s Mental Health Department, I saw the negative consequences of this law on a regular basis.
Many Polunsky inmates with mental health challenges had been incarcerated due to their failure to respond to the officer barking orders to them during a psychotic episode. They were often taken into custordy for resisting arrest and, in many instances, they ended up in prison.
So, in our state, the lack of available resources in the community for the severely mentally ill, and the failure to provide affordable housing for those who are poor, pushed many to the streets and into homelessness.
Last week, many of the over 550,000 people around this country were trying to stay warm and not freeze amidst an unbelievable snow and ice storm.
This this is a human tragedy. It is also a choice that we collectively make as a society.
Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, put it this way in a 2017 report: “Homelessness on this scale is far from inevitable and again reflects political choices to see law enforcement rather than low cost housing, medical treatment, psychological counselling and job training as the solutions.”
“There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions,” he said. “But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the U.S.A., the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”
If we can send a rocket ship to the moon and beyond, then, surely, we can figure out a way to humanely care for the most vulnerable among us.
Wash your hands, wear your double masks for others, mind the gap and be kind – especially if you are stuck at home!