So a homeless man was famously given an expensive pair of boots, then could not wear them because the world he lives in is so harsh that someone would very likely kill him to steal those boots. His brother says the bootless man is homeless by choice. “By choice” is code for ”he won’t quit drinking and/or using drugs”. If only he would stay clean, he wouldn’t be homeless.

It is widely accepted that addiction is a disease, that it can be successfully treated, and that it is not the result of moral deficiencies in the addict. An addict can no more choose to quit than a legless person can just get up and walk. It is not enough to cure an individual’s addiction if they are then dumped right back on the street which addicted them in the first place. Do we save someone from drowning, then throw them back in the water?

I have seen the choice argument used to stop many a conversation about homelessness. Usually the words are accompanied by a pose that says “I care,” while allowing the poser to drop the subject and lose no sleep over it. After all, we cannot help people who refuse to “accept help,” another code for pathological inability to follow social behavior expectations. Sure, you can come live at my house, if you quit drinking and fighting, quit smoking, quit using drugs and stealing, take a bath and brush your teeth every day, go to bed and get up at reasonable hours, get a job, and follow whatever rules I give you, no matter how restrictive or illogical they may be.

Fact is, the shelters are often crowded, dirty, dangerous and humiliating places where you may expect to be raped, robbed, pressured to do immoral acts, and, if you do get any sleep, you will be dumped back out on the dark sidewalk before dawn. Of course not every shelter is always like this, and many good people strive endlessly to keep the shelters safe, clean, and decent. It is not through their lack of attention or diligence that the shelters are too dangerous for some people. The workers there have no magic power to solve or even much affect the social ills that drive people into the street, and which keep them there.

These are the facts which stare me in the face as I watch vulnerable adults “choose” to walk off into the night, cold and wet and hungry as they may be, to look for a bush in which to sleep. I have watched a twenty-seven year old near-term pregnant woman walk away like that. I could not help her. I have watched people who are seriously ill or injured walk away like that. I have had to watch frail and elderly men and women walk away into the darkness. I have watched people who are clearly mentally ill go away like that.

These are matters fit to the slogan written on the wall at the Clayton, Jackson McGhie Memorial…matters about which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to remain silent. We can do better as a society. It is not the behaviors of the men, women, and children who are trapped and drowning in our sewers that are unacceptable. It is our insane desire as a culture to punish and abandon those who are most in need. Few of them or none ‘choose’ to live in the gutter. That is all we have left to them.

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