A. V. Swaminathan

SCENES of homelessness or poverty in a prosperous city such as Portland in Oregon, US, are even more disheartening and depressing than the most squalid scenes of destitution found in urban India. The American experience is, indeed, an inexplicable paradox poverty in a land of plenty, joblessness in the land of opportunity and homelessness amidst an active real-estate business.

Like Dick Whittington who imagined London was all paved with gold but found, to his utter dismay, it was only of brick and stone, visitors from underdeveloped countries would be surprised (not to mention shocked) to see people making their homes on sidewalks, in abandoned vehicles, underneath bridge girders or road overpasses with little more than the sky for a roof.

Perhaps because of the severe ban on begging there are no beggars, but sophisticated attempts are made to catch the attention of passers-by and accost them for "spare change". At some prominent spots, one cannot miss the eloquently crafted appeals on placards or eye-catching signboards. Not far away, sits the euphemistically named "panhandler" with nothing to distinguish his destitute condition save his garb of shabby apparel. This makes it impossible to identify the fake from the genuine sufferer and thus beggary succeeds in putting on a veneer of acceptability, which allows the business to flourish under the nose of enforcement authorities. Like the street singers of India, in the US too, it is not uncommon to see a lone singer perched comfortably on a stool singing away for a sympathetic buck.

It is stated that Portland's problem is a relatively small instance of an alarming malady prevailing in many cities, which may account for several thousands virtually living on their streets or in the open. While American citizens are very sensitive to matters that would help or harm the quality of their neighbourhood, the intrusion of the homeless draws out their charitable disposition rather than any aversion to the unwanted occupancy.

But the long arm of law may reach out and ultimately grab them. Police and City officials would come down on these helpless denizens unless the rehabilitation program, as envisioned by an inspired new Mayor, or some kind of social plan with all the needed official blessings to provide for these homeless people is hastened.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 12, 2005)
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