This summer, at the height of the homeless “invasion,” the first impression was of a modern-day diaspora. It was only natural to wonder where all these people came from.
A popular explanation says they’d been sent here by Bay Area city officials, who gladly paid for their bus tickets and promised them better services in Modesto. Those who work closely with homeless people say that’s not the case. Instead, as more and more homeless are interviewed, they’ve learned that most are from Modesto or places nearby.
It makes sense that a region with high unemployment, widespread poverty, and a frayed social safety net would have a large homeless population. Modesto’s readiness to blame others for its own problems is part of an ongoing process of denial. Too many of the city’s self-appointed “best citizens” refuse to admit that crime, poverty, and high unemployment rates that have contributed to homelessness.
City Councilman Dave Lopez, who is termed out and running for mayor, has promised to send those supposed homeless transplants back to where they came from. Like Donald Trump and others running for office, Lopez is seeking a hot button issue he can use to stoke voter anger. With Trump, it’s immigration. With Lopez, it’s homelessness.
Both politicians may find they’ve misread public sentiment. Politicians before Trump have found to their enduring dismay that ginning up hatred for immigrants can generate a stinging backlash. California Governor Pete Wilson, confronted with abysmal approval numbers, rode anti-immigrant anger and Proposition 187 to victory in 1994. Today, many think the Republican Party’s decline statewide since then is in large part due to disaffection among Latino voters.
Dave Lopez may also find that sympathy for the homeless—treated by some as illegal aliens—runs wider and deeper than he thinks. Many Modesto residents are willing to look beyond appearances into the compelling realities of homelessness.
During the Great Depression, the American people didn’t charge the homeless and out-of-work with lack of character. Instead, the nation’s people built social safety nets, provided jobs, and offered helping hands to the less fortunate.
Today, with thousands of jobs sent overseas, and with the San Joaquin Valley among the last regions to recover from the Great Recession, too many people are blaming homelessness on character defects. When politicians like Dave Lopez target the destitute among us, they perpetuate the problem by focusing on effects instead of causes.
If Lopez were actually among them, he might find that the homeless are routinely visited by Modesto citizens who offer food, toiletries, and sympathy. The people who do such things eschew fanfare, avoid publicity, and shun recognition. They are part of America’s long heritage of Christian charity in the truest sense—an offering of unconditional grace.
And while it’s true that politicians have had occasional success stoking anger and resentment, the enduring legacy of these tactics is failure. Dave Lopez might think twice about assuming most Modesto citizens are mean-spirited. Kind people are often quiet, preferring to speak with ballot boxes instead of megaphones.