Poverty: Is anyone listening?- HomelessnessMarathon.Org -- home of the Homelessness Marathon


The Homelessness Marathon

America's only national broadcast focusing on
homelessness and poverty

The 22nd Homelessness Marathon aired on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
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From Freep.Com, the website of the Detroit Free Press.


I remember an episode of the old TV show "Father Knows Best" in which the son brought home a shortwave radio, and the whole family gathered round to listen. Of course, this being television, the situation quickly turned dramatic, and sitting in their suburban living room, the TV family became the only ones to hear the distress signals from a sinking motorboat miles away. They wound up calling the Coast Guard, and the episode ended with a grateful skipper saying something like, "Thank you out there, whoever you are."

I'm thinking about this because I opened my own little window on the world and heard a distress call much like on TV, except that what I'm hearing anyone can hear, and there isn't likely to be a rescue.

What happened was that I started a new feature called "Movement Headlines," on the Web site of my organization, "The Homelessness Marathon" (a national radio broadcast, not a race). For thirteen years we've been going from city to city airing the voices of desperately poor and homeless people, because we know that no one can speak better about the problems of the poor than the poor themselves (at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, we'll begin a broadcast from Detroit). It seemed like a natural extension of our work to also post news about the broader anti-poverty movement, but I ran into an unexpected problem.

Though it is quickly gaining strength, the American anti-poverty movement is presently so weak that most people don't even know it exists. It's weak for a lot of reasons -- including a left more involved with race than class, corporate media with no interest in the poor, and the remaining adequacy of the bread and circuses we Americans enjoy -- so there's sometimes not enough movement activity to warrant reporting.

Instead of chronicling a demonstration here and a hunger strike there, I often find myself posting headlines about all the misery around the world from simple want. I'll be the first to say that what I wind up publishing (or "aggregating") is the most depressing collection of stories this side of a torture chamber. Even so, I often stop and wonder why these news items aren't common knowledge. Let me give you an example.

There have been stories for months now about the growing threat of famine in the Horn of Africa. Malnutrition is already severe around the region, millions of people are only being kept alive by food aid, and there is fear among cash-deprived aid agencies that they won't be able to keep up.

Now why isn't this life-and-death struggle, which involves millions of people, common knowledge in the United States? Before you answer, bear in mind that this isn't just about the Horn of Africa. There's also an estimated 140 million Arabs living below the poverty line; 56% of the French people say they fear becoming homeless; the poverty rate has doubled in Finland; the situation of India's children has been called "a total failure of Democracy"; scurvy has reemerged in Britain; one third of Egypt's children are malnourished; homelessness is rising among young Japanese professionals; at least 30% of Kenya's children between 12 and 18 earn money from sex; the UN says that, for the first time, over one billion people around the world are going hungry, and the price of food, like an inexorable tsunami, is rising pretty much everywhere.

I might add that things aren't so great here, either. In Detroit, for example, want of funds forces Alternatives for Girls to turn away 500 - 800 otherwise qualified 15- to 20-year-old candidates for shelter every year, and what does anyone think happens to 500 - 800 destitute young women left on the streets?

These are the messages I'm seeing, and as I said, they're there for anyone to see, which brings me back to the question as to why the awareness of widespread poverty is a fringe form of knowledge, while the possibility that there's a small number of Al Qaida in Yemen or somebody new in Brittany Spears' bed is front and center in our minds.

When it comes to other people's poverty, just understanding it can open many doors. If we knew more, we might be able to help more. We might also find cases where we bear responsibility. The question has been raised, for example, if our pollution caused Africa's drought or, for that matter, if our economic policies drove Haitians into Port Au Prince shantytowns. It seems unlikely that we're to blame for all the poverty in the world, but where we're blameless, it is still a case of when the canary dies in the coal mine, it's not a veterinary problem. What is making other people poor -- or whatever part of it we're not already experiencing -- may be coming after us. Forewarned is forearmed.

Those are some substantial reasons to pay attention to poverty, but there are some insubstantial ones too. No one can measure the value of the smallest things. If homeless people are wounded by the cold stares of passersby (and they are), how much better will they feel if given a warm smile instead? Perhaps we underestimate the difference we can make.

Perhaps we are too much like that fictional motorboat skipper who thought no one was listening in. Whether one conceives of it as simple cause and effect, with the universe providing the equal reaction to our every action, or one conceives of it as being observed by an all-knowing, all-judging Almighty, maybe, in some sense, we really are being heard. Maybe it really does make a difference what we do.

Jeremy Alderson of Hector, N.Y., is a radio broadcaster who founded the Homelessness Marathon in 1998.