The 2019 Polar Vortex was estimated to plunge approximately three-quarters of the American People into sub-freezing temperatures. The arctic air mass has been billed as the largest and coldest cold weather outbreak in a generation. Although there are inhabited parts of the world that experience far harsher weather conditions on a more regular basis, the record-breaking cold has forced an influential segment of the human population to confront weather conditions that they can normally avoid by simply going inside their heated homes, businesses, and cars. For a majority of Americans, the dangers of extreme temperatures largely create inconveniences, despite their life-threatening nature. Unfortunately, vulnerable populations like the homeless have few options to cope with the cold, especially when shelters are not accessible to them. In many respects, the impact of the 2019 Polar Vortex constitutes a national emergency. Because it affects those who often lack a voice, however, the suffering of those it impacts the most will largely be ignored.
Where the 2019 Polar Vortex has forcefully captured the attention of the media and the American People, a story involving the residents of New York City’s Upper West Side and the homeless is worth noting. Like many big cities, New York City struggles with the issue of homelessness. Major Bill de Blasio attempted to alleviate the homeless crisis by transforming the former Hotel Alexander into a homeless shelter. Residents of the affluent Upper West Side are now spending $120 a month to hire private security to patrol their neighborhoods and curb the threat allegedly posed by homeless people. Although criminals can be homeless and many homeless engage in unsavoury behavior, the reactions of residents say more about them than those who are homeless. It demonstrates a lack of empathy for those who need it the most on behalf of those who can do the most to solve the issues faced by the homeless. Even if the homeless can be blamed for increased crime rates, they too are victims of crime. If Upper West Side residents had an ounce of empathy, they would realize their newly discovered problems are the same problems the homeless have always struggled to overcome.
For anyone who has braved frigid, arctic temperatures, the piercing sting of the slightest breeze is enough to drive the most hardy to seek the comfort of the indoors. With every breath, it feels like icicles are being stabbed into one’s lung. Within moments, the face, fingers, and toes go numb. That numbness quickly begins to spread. After a few minutes, however, the mind starts to grow accustom to the pain. With the passage of time, the cold appears to lose its bite. A curious warmth is joined by a sense of utter weakness and exhaustion. The body is slowly dying. Using one’s experiences with frigid temperature to empathize with those who have faced death at the hands of exposure, it is easy to imagine how horrific the experience would be. If one also images what it would be like to freeze to death with other people close by and able to help, it is fairly easy to understand the helplessness the homeless must feel. Whether someone dies from frigid temperatures or survives, the idea of the experience is a truly terrifying thought.
There are over 550,000 homeless individuals living on the streets in the United States on any given night. There are roughly 40,000 homeless veterans. There are approximately 60,000 homeless families and nearly 60,000 homeless children. There are millions of Americans are at risk of becoming homeless. During the Great Recession and the prolonged economic recovery, millions more Americans nearly lost everything. The Great Recession was a culturally traumatic event. It was moment in history when the Middle Class and the more affluent were forced to confront the issues the poor and impoverished had been struggling with for decades. They were forced to empathy with the struggles of the less fortunate instead of simply ignoring them or blaming them for their misfortunes. It should have been a collective experience that united all Americans and ingrained empathy into the minds of all those financially devastated by the second worst economic crisis in US history. Regrettably, that collective empathy Americans temporarily experienced during the Great Recession appears to have faded with the passage of time and the growth of the economy.
Instead of uniting to proactively address the issues of the homeless and poor, the American People and the US government have opted to avoid those issues. To tackle homelessness and help another 25,000 families, the US government could allocate another $287 million over the 2018 Fiscal Year budget for Homeless Assistance Grants, which help local communities address homelessness. The Trump Administration has asked for $130 million below 2018 spending levels. That said, one of the principle complaints of Upper West Side resident is that “[t]he city dumped the problem in our lap.” In other words, government made homeless an issue for Upper West Side residents instead of helping them hide the problem. That reveals a cultural problem. Not only do Americans, or at least some, seem to believe social issues like homelessness are government problems, because they pay taxes, they do not want government to solve them. They want government to help them avoid those problems. Government efforts to address social issues, which affluent taxpayers undermine because they do not want to pay taxes, are needed, but government solutions are not enough. Americans on all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder need to confront and address social issues.
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