America's Orphans:
What the homeless say about us

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Dec. 6, 1997)

God bless the folks at the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution." They demonstrate over and over that a photograph, like any image, conceals as much as it reveals.

The day after Thanksgiving, the daily ran the inevitable stories about feeding the homeless. The couple of pictures the paper published were not of the homeless themselves but of smiling volunteers. Of course, one could (lamely) argue that the paper wished to avoid embarrassing the homeless by exhibiting them in print. Even if that were so, the decision still reflects our profound discomfort with one of the nation's most intractable minorities, a relatively new underclass.

In a time when unemployment is at an all-time low and desperate employers are actually using billboards to advertise jobs, the homeless represent a population that is completely anomalous to the eyes of most Americans. To most of us, getting a job -- money -- is the obvious solution.

That thinking doesn't account for who the real members of this new underclass are. Quite a few actually work but are unable to afford housing. But many are mentally ill and alcoholic people who formerly were warehoused in state institutions. Joblessness and homelessness are symptoms, not causes, of their conditions.

What I would like to do in this column is look at the homeless in terms of what they say about us and our society, without getting deeply embroiled in the question of social and economic origins and how the "problem" might be solved. Instead, I want to look at it as a symptom or a sign of something at work in the culture at large, something that calls all of us to some change. For that is what any symptom does. It calls for change, regardless of its origin or the question of "curability."

The dispossessed and marginalized have always been the symptom-bearers of our society. African-Americans, torn from a tribal existence and made the property of white men, have continued, long after liberation, to live out the effects of being denied participation in the dominant American community of capitalism. Family dissolution, violence and rage have disproportionately plagued that community.

Other groups also bear the society's symptoms. Is it a coincidence that the main objects of sexual-based hatred, gay men, also became the principal victims of AIDS? Children, the nation's most powerless minority, are subjected to astonishing abuse in America and have become more and more violent.

What do the homeless share with these others? What do they represent for the society as a whole?

They are all orphans of a sort, rootless and without support where it is most needed. The homeless are America's orphans. The orphan is forever seeking a home, drifting, parentless, grasping for a destiny that retreats behind the cloud of depression.

As I said, it is easy and tempting to reductively argue economic causes and cures for homelessness, but its intractability suggests to me that this orphan status reflects a deep psychological meaning for each citizen. Like the AJC's decision not to show the homeless in their naked need, perhaps we ask the homeless, mainly invisible, to express the orphan within our own psyches.

Robert Romanyshyn has noted that St. Augustine said that becoming an orphan relates one to God. Thus, he writes: "The Orphan is our god face. It is the moment when we are first made able-to-respond to the call of becoming truly who we are, who we are destined to be. It is the moment when we are first able to become response-able as creation's continuing witness for its real-ization."

The enlarging homeless population, like the ever-growing prescription of antidepressant drugs, demonstrates the burgeoning melancholy that underlies American life, cutting us off, orphaning us. But following Romanyshyn's analysis, you could say that the symptom reveals reality's actual conditions: Consumerism and capital cannot deliver us from the death that surrounds us.

How are we all being orphaned? The planet, Mother Earth, itself is in ecological crisis. The church, which is called "mother" in many faiths and advocates worship of god the father, has likewise lost most of its capacity to nurture because of its reiteration of archaic dogmas. The American Dream, that fantasy of endless productivity and wealth, has become mainly an object of bitter satire. The family has been completely pathologized as the cause of all adult unhappiness. Values are so relativized in postmodern thinking, that one can't even find an intellectual center to which to cling.

Of course, the temptation -- best illustrated in recent years by Newt Gingrich's advocacy of a return to Victorian morals -- is the fundamentalist solution: to return to the womb, the good old days. Naturally, when one attempts to return to the good old days of the womb, one instead situates the psyche in a cartoonlike fantasy. All those who advocate such solutions -- from Gingrich to Jimmy Swaggart -- invariably reveal cynical hearts embittered by their own orphaning.

So, the homeless is a population sacrificed to bear the symptoms of modern life for us all, the terrible grief and melancholy most of us cannot face -- even in a newspaper picture.

But the population, through its very enlargement and the arrogance with which its members approach us on the street, demanding attention, requires us to look more deeply at our own grief. Likewise, the failure of old solutions to reduce the homeless population and our own depression calls us to a revolutionary change. As Romanyshyn suggests, the moment we behold the archetypal orphan in ourselves, we begin to apprehend our destiny: to move away from the lost and sentimentalized home, away from bitterness, to the recovery of wholly new meaning in life.

Perhaps, then, the homeless call us as individuals and citizens of the state not so much to an economic reordering as a spiritual shift in perspective. All the endless rhetoric about what we are going to do to avert ecological crisis or restore the family's integrity or revive the church or save the American Dream of social security ignores the heavy loss and grieving that our society is undergoing.

By grieving, we can enter a psychological space that makes room for an authentic change in American life. We are accustomed to the need for days of mourning when our friends, family and leaders die. The almost hyperbolic outpouring for Princess Diana and her children demonstrates the natural call of the psyche for this.

Perhaps, then, the homeless call us once and for all to mourn the death of the American Dream, so that we can begin the formation of a new one.

Consider, like Romanyshyn, what you turn away from when you turn your face toward the glow of angels this Christmas: the dark face of the abandoned, orphaned self.

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published Dec. 6, 1997


"The Orphan and the Angel," Psychological Perspectives, Fall 1995.

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