We haven't heard much about the homeless since the Clinton Administration took office nearly five years ago. Until then, homelessness was said to be the result of Republican insensitivity and the economic policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Vice President Gore thrust the homeless back into the spotlight just before Christmas when he rounded up a group of children from a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter and brought them to the Department of Housing and Urban Development where they served as props for an administration announcement to spend $865 million to help the homeless "find homes and hope."
Displaying his theological ignorance (matched only by his environmental ignorance), the vice president said that Mary and Joseph were homeless. In fact, they had left home to pay taxes in another town. They found a "no vacancy" sign at an inn and had to camp in a stable. While traveling, I have been turned away from motels because they were booked to capacity, but in seeking other accommodations I never viewed myself as homeless.
A HUD spokesman said the homeless children were briefed before the event. Jessica Christie said the kids were shown a picture of Mr. Gore before he showed up and were given "background information so they would know why he is important." That would be instructive for the rest of us. The vice president then showed up to what must have been wondering eyes. He read them a Christmas story (but not the Christmas story). When the event concluded, the homeless kids, having served his purpose, were shuttled back to their shelter where they could ponder the important company they had briefly kept.
Mr. Gore told them not to worry because some of America's publishers were going to donate hundreds of thousands of books to them and other homeless kids. Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, now head of the Association of American Publishers, said, "Every American needs to know that reading out loud to children is as important as fastening their seat belt."
Things are looking up for the homeless, no thanks to government. Since government benefits have declined, 20 percent of the homeless have checked into rescue missions, according to the International Union of Gospel Missions. Instead of a government check, rescue missions seek to change lives from the inside out. IUGM Executive Director Stephen E. Burger says: "Those who lost benefits tend to be alcohol- and drug-addicted men and women in their 40s and 50s who previously received Social Security Disability and SSI benefits. The government has finally done away with their drunk checks."
While rescue missions cannot force people to change, they can lead them to confront the responsibility they have to deal with their problems and can empower them in ways that secular government cannot.
How cynical of the vice president to use homeless children as props and then immediately thrust them back into their all-too-real world. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who tells the injured man by the side of the road to have a nice day is condemned, while the man who picks up the injured traveler and instructs the innkeeper to care for him at his benefactor's expense is praised.
Real compassion isn't a government check and it isn't using the wretched unfortunates as backdrops for one's political aspirations. Why didn't the vice president ask the kids to spend the night, or give them sleeping bags or some other substantive gift that might have eased their misery?
"No child should have a life where there's no address for Santa Claus to come on Christmas morning," Mr. Gore said in his most compassionate voice. Thanks to Mr. Gore's quick eviction of the homeless kids (they were there for 90 minutes, which included the briefing), Santa could see all of them together in a homeless shelter.
© 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate