October 14, 2021
When I was driving into Fort Smith last week, I passed a couple walking east along the highway. They appeared to be homeless as they were pushing a shopping cart that was loaded with their possessions. I assumed they had enough of Fort Smith and were moving east. While I could empathize with their need for a move, I was not sure going east was wise. They had walked eight miles (nearly 13 kilometers) from town. My community was the next stop, and it was another seven miles (over 11 kilometers). The low undulating hills they faced meant a lot of up and down to push the cart. Frankly, the resources in Fort Smith were far greater than they would find anywhere else until they hit Little Rock, 140 miles (224 kilometers) to the east. When I passed them on my way home, they had stopped to rest.
When I looked online, I found that homelessness emerged as a national issue in in the US during the 1870’s. Early homeless people lived in the emerging urban cities. The Great Depression of the 1930’s caused a substantial rise in unemployment and homelessness. The Great Recession of the late 2000’s was another major contributor to rising homelessness rates. Amid the covid crisis, there are now over half a million homeless people in the US. These individuals live in a temporary shelter, transitional housing, or sleep in a place not meant for habitation (like an abandoned building). The top four causes of homelessness are the lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages. Two thirds of the homeless population of the US is single individuals and the remaining third are families. In recent years, homelessness has increased by almost 1%. The large cities of the east and west coast have the largest percentage of homelessness, but this is a national issue effecting all areas.
Seeing the disheveled couple moving their possessions east made me think of a movie I saw during the 1990’s. Wagons East! was a 1994 Western adventure buddy comedy film directed by Peter Markle and starring John Candy and Richard Lewis. The plot followed a group of misfit settlers in the 1860’s who decide they cannot live in their current situation in the west. They hire a grizzled alcoholic wagon master named James Harlow (Candy) to take them on a journey back to their hometowns in the east. They are eventually captured in Sioux territory where the Chief is sympathetic to the idea of ‘white men heading back east’ and offers them an escort. The movie ends with a fight between Harlow and the cavalry sent to wipe them out for creating bad publicity for the railroad’s promotion to go west. The movie was panned by critics and received a 0% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. I thought it was “cute.”
Thoughts: While Wagons East! may have been cute, the long-term effects of homelessness are not. Studies have found that 1 in 30 children and youths in the US experience homelessness. The problems begin before birth, as homeless women give birth to low birth-weight babies and have a high infant mortality rate. One in five children have clinically diagnosed problems with anxiety, depression, and withdrawal, and 16% demonstrate severe aggression and hostility. By elementary age these children are drastically behind in the social skills needed to receive an education, and this is compounded by frequent changes in schools and lack of attendance. These numbers focus on children in the US where services are available. Across the world the problem is worse. We like to read stories of individuals rising above poverty and homelessness. Like the myth of the “self-made man,” they happen, but the likelihood is infinitesimal. Do the work. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.