The Public in Crisis: 14 Quotes About Homelessness

Editor's Note:

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Based on headlines alone, one might assume the US was in the middle of an economic boom, but you don’t have to look any further than your streets, parks, or public library to know the truth: Americans are becoming homeless in truly frightening numbers, assisted by an addiction epidemic and an overall decline in mental health services. The Despite the swelling numbers, the Federal government’s response to the crisis remains “lackluster.”

As we debate causes and cures, the season’s extreme weather adds pressure to the conversation: with shelters nationwide filled to capacity, our homeless neighbors have to fight even harder for survival, and many will freeze to death before winter’s end.

This is the very scenario that plays out in “The Public,” a new film written and directed by Emilio Estevez which will debut at SBIFF this week. In the trailer below, which a band of Cincinnati’s homeless refuse to leave their local library, an act of civil disobedience that yields powerful and wide-ranging results.

A library is the perfect backdrop for such an exercise in democracy. As you’ll see in the following quotes, authors serve as the ultimate observers of the human condition, able to illuminate in a few words what the rest of us can’t seem to parse in our endless frustration with the status quo.

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, 1988
“Homelessness is a nationality now.”

Howard Zinn, Marx in Soho: A Play on History, 1999
“You call this progress, because you have motor cars and telephones and flying machines and a thousand potions to make you smell better? And people sleeping on the streets?”

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, 2012
“This unhoused, exiled Satan was perhaps the heavenly patron of all exiles, all unhoused people, all those who were torn from their place and left floating, half-this, half-that, denied the rooted person’s comforting, defining sense of having solid ground beneath their feet.”

Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987
“Well, feel this, why don’t you? Feel how it feels to have a bed to sleep in and somebody there not worrying you to death about what you got to do each day to deserve it. Feel how that feels. And if that don’t get it, feel how it feels to be a colored woman roaming the roads with anything God made liable to jump on you. Feel that.”

Herman Melville, Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs, 1854
“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

Hélder Câmara, Dom Hélder Câmara: Essential Writings, 2009
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862
“There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.”

Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1839
“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, 2016
“It is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933
“It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.”

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969
“People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”

Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, 2009
“But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food includes strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down toward destitution.”

Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is, 1995
“Our lives can change with every breath we take.”