A roof over your head. Seems like such a basic concept, but ironically, what is the term for the biggest group of expenses of any business (the expenses that constantly get cut in order to maintain profitability)? Overhead — employee salaries and benefits, office or commercial space, utilities, taxes, insurance to maintain that office or commercial space. So, as businesses struggle to make payments, and often have to layoff staff, so do the many individual employees affected by such cuts. And with all the holes in the safety net of government assistance, more and more people are losing homes and without employment unable to find affordable housing. Vicious cycle, as they say.
Homeless is a term that says it all. You have hit rock bottom economically and you have the cold hard pavement as a pillow each night. A few weeks ago, our blog talked about the politics of cancer and how some forms were politically incorrect and less sympathetic (notably, lung cancer thanks to tobacco stigma). The same rules apply to the homeless and make them easy to dismiss — when you have a group that includes the mentally ill (many off meds or untreated), the drug addicted (alcohol, prescription, and/or illegal drugs), and the criminal (serving your time does not guarantee you a roof over your head upon release), many are going to be quick to write off the problem of homelessness as unsolvable or throwing good money after bad. But the group also includes people who can’t find work in a tough economy, entire families, veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other wars, and the poor who work but don’t earn enough to pay for housing.
Real life is seldom ever neat and tidy, however. I was reminded of this when hearing the latest presidential campaign tussles over 47% of Americans not paying federal income tax and some other percentage receiving government assistance. Regardless of which candidate you support, those numbers should disturb you. A lot. For me, they underscore that too many Americans are on the handout side of some kind of weighted scale and not enough are on the working and earning enough to pay federal taxes side.
That is why I was heartened by a casual event when I was down to the Pennsylvania Convention Center last week. I was approached by a street vendor selling a newspaper called “One Step Away.” It is a new publication designed for a noble purpose— to incentivize the homeless to earn money and get themselves on a path toward a roof over their heads. Each homeless vendor pays 25 cents a copy but sells the paper for $1. That means every paper purchased puts 75 cents in their pocket. Most salespersons I know would kill for a 75% commission; however, we’re not talking about an easy-to-sell product in the digital age. In fact, I just saw a story about how newspaper revenues had dropped to 1950s levels. So, “One Step Away” is properly structured on a basic free enterprise level and the homeless vendors have a great carrot to help themselves. They have skin in the game, unlike a significant portion of those 47% who aren’t paying federal income taxes but receiving benefits.
“One Step Away” gets its name from the truism that too many of us are only a missed paycheck or a lost job or a medical crisis on the plus side of the homelessness ledger. That is a sobering thought.
If you would like to help the “One Step Away” mission, I encourage you to visit OSAPHILLY.ORG to donate, support, advertise. This video will introduce you to some of the many homeless vendors you will be helping get back on their feet.
Philadelphia once captured national attention about the problem of homelessness when an 11-year-old boy named Trevor Ferrell from one of America’s richest suburbs, Gladwyne, challenged his parents, his church, and a whole lot of other fellow citizens to help out. I am glad to see that TrevorsCampaign.org is still carrying on his mission. It was a little bittersweet to read this account and learn that the adult Trevor elected not to leverage his fame into a career and is now dealing somewhat anonymously with adult challenges like the rest of us — meeting financial obligations and trying to make a good life for his own family. We all have skin in this game.