In the days following the devastating earthquake and resultant tsunami which brought death and destruction to the coasts surrounding the Indian Ocean, it seemed that each successive newscast brought staggeringly higher casualty totals. At 7 a.m. on day two it was 23,000; 27,000 by noon and 35,000 by the 10 o'clock news, with a similar pattern in subsequent days until the total is well over 125,000 as I write this piece.
By the time you read it, I believe the totals will have risen even above the 138,000 lives lost by that previous worst natural disaster, a cyclone which inundated Bangladesh about 15 years ago.
Then there are those other mounting numbers, the death toll in Iraq. Lately I haven't seen what they are. It's as if the national press has wearied of reminding us that (what is it, 1,400 Americans and 24,000 Iraqis?) the figure is climbing rapidly. Not long ago, a little box with the casualty figures was inserted in almost every story about the invasion. But since the week before Christmas I haven't seen the number. I guess it's been deemed too depressing a reminder at the holiday season.
Those gigantic numbers, when we focus on them, can be overwhelming. The mind can't quite get around them. The vast sadness they represent is numbing. We want to do something to help: gathering blankets or canned goods, writing checks, sending e-mails and prayers out into the cosmos—but it all seems so damnably inadequate. We want to act, but aren't sure how best to respond to actually make a difference.
I was recently part of a local group that was similarly moved to action, and by a far smaller number. On a cold Friday in December the annual Commemoration of the Homeless was held at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Albuquerque.
As usual, it was a very simple, dignified service. Poetry and music alternated with prayers.
And then came the reading of the names of those homeless men and women who died in our city during this past year. A few were known only by nicknames or first names, but most were remembered by both personal and family names. Those who were unknown were lumped together at the end. We counted more than 30 this year, as we have every year since I've been going to these memorials.
That's not a staggering toll. Cigarettes, DWI, handguns and cancer all claim more victims in Albuquerque each year than homelessness, measured simply by body count. It's a figure that is dwarfed by the tsunami totals or the Iraqi war dead or the children dying in the Sudan.
Somehow, though, at some point in the life of this community, we have to do something positive about this situation. Homelessness is, after all, something that can be ended. That we tolerate its continuation, that we throw up our hands ineffectually and shrug our shoulders about it, is a disgrace.
Here, in contrast, is a death toll we can do something tangible to reduce. But it will take genuine leadership from our elected officials and (here's the tricky part) a willingness to commit adequate public funding to the effort.
For starters, Bernalillo County's purchase of the old Charter Hospital facility on Zuni needs to be supported by the city. If we can't have a consolidated local government we can at least expect that the two bodies will coordinate and assist one another.
Once it is open as a detox facility, public inebriates need to be taken there by the police, as has been done in Gallup for over 10 years, with a resulting reduction in the number of homeless living on the streets there. Don't take them to jail or to the hospital emergency rooms, take them to a place designed to sober them up and get them into treatment.
Mental health problems among the homeless need similar attention. Stopgap measures need to be replaced with a well-financed, adequately staffed program that actually treats those problems and provides the supportive services the mentally ill need to be able to function. We need employment and housing services; child care and transportation. If we are serious about dealing with homelessness, we can't fake these critical tools.
Finally, we have to respond to the needs of the several hundred homeless teenagers who live on our streets. Treating them like criminals and pariahs (as is done with Youth in Transition) is not working. If we don't commit realistic public funding to supporting them, we will reap the consequences years from now with a continuing cycle of more homeless.
The numbers demand our action. They are not cold statistics, they are urgent warnings. We simply cannot ignore that call.
Lastly, loose ends from a pair of my earlier columns need to be cleared up.
In the piece I wrote on the Salvadoran Army last month, I used the figure of 100,000 as the size of that country's military. A friend who lived there for a time called to say the number seemed high, so I checked it and discovered I'd made a mistake. The actual number of soldiers in El Salvador's military is slightly under 40,000—still large for a tiny country.
And in the piece on banking practices, I did not mention the name of the bank involved. Several readers asked for that information. It was Wells Fargo.