by Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer

The cost of preventing homelessness, or at least making a major dent, is small compared to many other national priorities.

Evidence is provided through initial results of federal spending through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as President Obama's economic stimulus.

Stimulus critics have abounded, describing the stimulus as everything from wasteful to budget-busting to socialist, but the book "The New New Deal" by Time magazine contributor Michael Grunwald details the Recovery Act's widespread and under-publicized results.

Consider homelessness prevention, which received a comparatively scant $1.5 billion of the $787 billion two-year stimulus package. Grunwald reports that the funds helped provide shelter for more than 1.2 million Americans in hardship and held the homeless count in check during the worst economy since the 1930.

"It works," said Ron Book, who chairs the Miami-Dad County Homeless Trust. "It keeps people off the streets and saves an astronomical amount of money. I'm not a fan of the stimulus, but this is a huge bright spot." And Book is not a bleeding heart Obama liberal. In everyday life he's a Republican lobbyist.

Consider that a National Priorities Project website,, through mid-November 2012 calculated the post-millenium cost of the U.S. Middle East wars at $1.4 trillion, nearly 1,000 times higher than the Recovery Act's $1.5 billion homelessness prevention effort. Plus, according to Gunwald, that $1.5 billion investment was 60 times the previous norm.

It could be said that we should think of people rather than dollars, but dollars do make all the difference in the world. When we think of our tax dollars and our federal government budget, we should give more priority to homelessness prevention and other anti-poverty programs. Some people, especially political conservatives, has a false impression that these priorities cost tons of money, whereas the main tax burdens are the military and the costs of war, along with overpriced health care.
Photo: Wolfgang Lonien
By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer       

Heading toward the presidential election, through three debates, neither candidate uttered the word "poverty."       That's sad and tragic, and while this omission is a lousy reflection upon both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it's also a lousy reflection on mainstream U.S. society, at least in political terms.       

In such a close election, it would likely be political suicide for either Obama or Romney to speak with any sympathy toward people most in need. There would be a backlash, and accusations of "big government" and even "socialism" from the other side. Obama also is branded as "the food stamp president," although he speaks rarely about increasing food aid during times of economic recession.       

Both candidates harp on uplifting the "middle class," which somehow has transformed to include families making up to $250,000 per year. Every rare once in a while, I've heard Obama add that he aims to uplift the poor into the middle class. But only every rare once in a while.       

Making matters worse, the Associated Press reports that as census data continues to be amassed (the Census Bureau remains active in between the every-decade counts), the poverty rate is soaring toward 15.7 percent, the highest since the War on Poverty started during the middle 1960s. Based on my memories of the idealistic mid- and late-60s, if there had been presidential debates back then, poverty most certainly would have been on the agenda.       

So why has poverty become a blind spot in our general political discourse? Some critics will say it's because of frustration at lack of progress, because the War on Poverty has been a failure. After all, we've spent all this money, and one in six families still  is officially poor -- for example, an income of less than $23,000 for a four-person household. I disagree; I'd hate to think of how things would be without the various War on Poverty programs, at least the ones that have survived and that have not been stripped bare.      

Other critics will assert that a culture of dependency has been created. Any of us who are honest must admit we have seen some individual examples of this, but too many of us ignore what activist Peter Edelman described as a "tidal wave" of minimum wage jobs. The vast majority of households in poverty are headed by the working poor. I don't understand why the hard-hearted among this fail to see this.      

Amid all the analysis, I personally observe and sense a compassion deficit. I hate to say this, because it makes me sound holier and more caring than thou. Still, I'm only being honest. When Romney's "47 percent" comment was unveiled, falsely implying that nearly half of Americans are "takers" who rely on government while not paying taxes, the first reaction among national pundits was that this revelation would severely harm his campaign. My own reaction, to the contrary, was that the 47 percent remark would actually help Romney among the population's resentful and bitter element of people, and it seems that's been closer to the truth.      

Most people I encounter are courteous, kind individuals. So why is our politics so spiteful, that neither candidate will even risk talking much about uplifting our brothers and sisters (and our children) in need? To tell the truth, I'm stumped.     


By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer        

Call me naive. Call me out of touch. Or call me a conservative.       

I don't feel I'm any of those, but maybe it's true. I simply don't quite believe the leaders of Feeding America, the nation's leading food provider, when they say one in six citizens face hunger on a regular basis.      

I get around -- in fact, I've volunteered to  oversee children's Summer Food Program lunches -- and I simply don't see it.       People fall short of food, but they usually get help. Children are most at risk but when they go hungry, the cause most often is family dysfunction rather than poverty.       

I agree that one of six families -- far more, in some areas -- need support from food stamps. I agree with Feeding America's legislative activism to combat tea party threats to nutrition programs.      

However, advocates should strive to avoid exaggeration, especially during today's divisive and hostile politics.      

That being said, there is much to gain from visiting the Feeding America website. Many stereotypes are demolished, most vividly that poverty is essentially an urban problem. Poverty is everywhere. Feeding America reports that greatest  hardship in D.C., which we might expect, and the state of Oregon, which we wouldn't.      

Also, we all should be aware that food banks can make a little bit of money go a long way by obtaining surplus food and buying in bulk.      

Here's the website:
By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer      

Haven't been panhandled lately, but have been thinking of the questions. Give or don't give directly? Cash, coins or food? Acknowledge or ignore?     

This is on my mind because in my Michigan hometown of Saginaw, six police officers shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man during the summer, and there has been all sorts of controversy. To know more, there is the option of Googling for "Milton Hall Saginaw." My own feeling, shared by many others, is that the cops could have restrained Milton instead of gunning him down, although he was brandishing a knife. But back to panhandling.     

One person who commented on a blog said they had encountered Milton, and that he was aggressive and had scared them. Many of the pro-cops opinions have been biased, but this is one I can understand even though is didn't justify shooting Milton. Being older in age and not having been in an altercation since I was a kid, I don't want to get hooked up in a street-side hockey fight. Indeed, a homeless panhandler can be scary in some rare instances.     

I suppose the best reaction  is to say, "Look, I don't have anything either." There have been a few times when a panhandler looked at me with sort of screwy surprise after I said, "Dang, what a coincidence, I was just about to ask YOU for a dollar." (It reflects on my near-senior citizen status to recall back when a mere quarter was worth what a dollar's worth nowadays.)     

I did some web-searching, and there were suggestions such as, if near a food service place, offer to get the panhandler some food, which makes sense. There are other considerations, though. Whether money or food, encouraging the panhandler may lead to more panhandling, harmful to nearby business establishments in their everyday quests to attract customers.     

One thing I learned from the web search, from a writeup by a former panhandler doing better now, is to not ignore the solicitor. At least offer some human acknowledgement, being a glance and a few words, even if you have nothing to offer or you choose not to offer anything. Don't just walk by with a stiff neck.     

We can always soothe our consciences, of course, by donating to shelters and soup kitchens and food banks, but when encountering a panhandler directly, this seems like sort of a cop-out.      

Usually, I just sort of say to myself what-the-hang, reach in my pocket, and give some coins.     

Also, was surprised to see that the municipal website for what would seem to be a prosperous university town -- Bloomington, Indiana -- devotes an entire entry to advice in regards to panhandling. See:
By Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer

I never would have dreamed of being a Salvation Army bell-ringer. Then I received a writing assignment to ring a red-kettle bell for a day. As a shy person, there was much trepedation. But I went ahead and sucked it up.

You know what? Once I got started, it was fun. (Of course, it was an unseasonably mild December day, so it's not like I was out there getting frostbite.)

If your local Salvation Army is like mine in my Michigan hometown of Saginaw, you can pick your day(s)  and your hours at your convenience starting around Thanksgiving.

When I received the writing assignment, I figured it would be good to glean some advice from a veteran. The Saginaw Salvation Army sent me out to see to see a man who became one of my heroes, Ted Kolhagen, who in recent years is dearly departed. What a guy! When I encountered him, he was 76 years old and in his 49th season of bell-ringing. He had an act where he would whistle and dance and clown around with anyone who approached the kettle, child or adult. And so I told my editor, Ted was far more interesting than anything I might write in the first person. To see the resulting article, look here:

Well, I still was bound to do my bell-ringing, even though I had chosen to write about Ted instead of myself. And so, armed with Ted's advice and examples, I was out there.

Ted's first rule was that "shy" is no excuse. If you just stand there and tinkle the bell, you're selling the program short. Indeed, Ted would bring in about $60 an  hour, compared to about $20 for the listless bell-ringers whom The Salvation Army is forced to pay minimum wage because of a lack of volunteers. So I found myself out there shouting "ho-ho-ho" (I couldn't whistle like Ted, in spite of -- or because of -- the David Letterman gap in my front teeth.) One lady walked past the kettle and smirked, "Do you think that helps you?" But then a guy in professional business attire walked past, laughing, and jammed a folded $10-spot into the kettle. He laughed and said, "Those are some hearty ho-ho-hoes." And I said to myself, "Ted Kolhagen, you are vindicated." (Curious? I made $35 an hour.)

Two-liter pops were on sale in a big stack at the storefront, and people were grabbing 'em up, and so I stole another lesson from Ted and slid the kettle over near the  pops. Sure enough, donations increased. It was like, the customers were contributing the money they saved on the pop discount.

Then a woman walked by, like so many folks, with her nose up in the air. Her checkbook fell out of her purse. "Ma'am," I called out. She thanked me when I returned the checkbook, and, feeling guilty, stuck a pair of dollar bills through the slot.

The Salvation Army assigned me to a pair of places for half-day shifts. At the Kmart in the low-income neighborhood, I got a regular stream of donations -- no big ones, but a bunch. But in front of the high-rent Macy's, most people ignored me, although that's where I got the fin from the guy who laughed as my ho-ho-hoeing. I'm not making any comment here, just passing on what I experienced.

Readers: Consider an experiment in volunteer bell-ringing. You won't know whether this fits you until, and unless, you try it.
By Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer

When it comes to poverty in the United States, it seems to me a growing number of wealthy and upper-middle-class people are resentful of poor folks. There is a perception that people at and near the bottom are shiftlessly going along for a free ride. Although this may be true in some cases, it's not true for the vast majority. I'm an advocate for the poor and a political liberal, but also a realist. There are good and bad, mostly good, in all income groups.

We see the have/have not friction in debates regarding taxes. I don't understand why the haves are so honked off, because they're paying their lowest rates since the Eisenhower years, but over and over I hear the complaint, "Half of the people don't pay any taxes."

Well, actually it's 46 percent, according to a recent CNN Money report. So let's check a few facts:

-- Most of these people are working. Under the tax code, they don't make enough money.

-- Most are paying taxes, just not general federal income taxes. They're paying entitlement payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. Often they're paying state taxes, which are less progressive than the federal code. They're paying local property taxes, even as renters, because the property taxes are part of the rent. And they're paying sales taxes, the most regressive form of taxation.

Consider a low-income family of four. The father makes $12 an hour as a janitor, not too shabby, but he only gets 30 hours per week. Mom makes $9 an hour as a nurse aide (the nation's most underpaid profession, in my opinion), but she only gets 20 hours. Their income is $510 per week and $26,400 annually, deducting a handful of uncompensated sick days. (People in these sorts of jobs don't get paid when they call in sick, so  they often work when ill.)

So, $26,400, eh? What a coincidence! If you combine the standard deduction of $11,600 with four individual deductions of $3,700 apiece, that's a matching amount: $26,400. And so this family pays no federal income tax (although plenty of Social Security and state/local taxes). What bugs me is that somebody earning $200,000 or maybe a cool million (with only the first $110,000 subject to Social Security) would have such a big problem with the less fortunate family.

There are families and individuals making more than $26,400 that also pay no taxes. In fact, many receive rebates. The main reasons are child care credits, education credits and mainly the Earned Income Tax Credit. The purpose of the EITC, first advocated by Richard Nixon and then embraced by Ronald Reagan, is to justify keeping the minimum wage artificially, and despairingly, low. Conservative tax-baiters should realize that the EITC is not a liberals' concoction. Small business owners and their chambers of commerce love the Earned Income Tax Credit, so that they can continue paying poverty wages.

Nearly half of Americans indeed pay no federal income taxes, but if the various credits and deductions were canceled, the figure would drop to 18 percent. Maybe that would make some deep-pocketed people at the country club happy. Why?

By Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer

The school year is beginning after a long and too-hot summer, and many teachers and students will consider community service projects, including outreach to the homeless.

Intentions may be honorable but care and advance planning are crucial. For example, I once encountered a high school class that volunteered to serve a Christmas lunch at a shelter. Two key mistakes occurred.

First, the kids simmered the chicken soup noodles for two hours. Normally that might be okay, but these were ramen noodles. Yuck! One may be homeless and hungry, but even then, the appetite has limits.

Second, the students (or their parents) made some high-quality afghans as gifts. This was a wonderful and thoughtful idea, but alas, there weren't enough afghans to go around. Not wanting to exclude anyone, the kids wrapped some alternative gifts. Unfortunately, these were mere canned food items. One shaggy fellow opened his can of beans, somewhat understandably took offense, and started cussing.

The whole deal was a disaster. The class adviser should have known better, and the high schoolers were old enough to know better too.

Therefore my first tip for school projects to support the homeless is to always put oneself in the other's shoes, making sure dignity and personal respect are the top priority. Don't look down on homeless people, either intentionally or unconsciously.

Consider projects other than feeding. Homeless shelters and rescue missions by and large have that covered. A class might consider providing entertainment at the shelter, bringing along school musicians or performing a skit. Caroling works good during the holiday season.

Think of interactive things to do, as simple as breaking into groups for card games or board games. (A lot of older guys, homeless included, know dominoes. They might get a charge -- and some self-worth -- from teaching the kids to play.) Story telling is another idea; a student tells a story, then a resident, taking turns.

Above all, aim to schedule several visits rather than just one, which can seem sort of like a hit-and-run. Establish a relationship. What the heck, maybe the school system could bus the shelter residents out to the school for a visit.
by Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer

Many people link global hunger with overpopulation. In other words, too many people, not enough food for all.

World Hunger Educational Service tells us differently.

 "The world produces enough food to feed everyone," the organization flatly asserts, stating that even though the global population has grown by 70 percent during the past three decades, agricultural production has surged so massively that calories per person have increased by 17 percent. Match the two numbers, and we see that the total calories produced have nearly doubled.

So if all this is true, why are nearly 1 billion of the planet's 7 billion souls suffering from hunger and malnutrition, including 578 million in Asia and the Pacific, and 239 million in sub-Saharan Africa?

World Hunger Educational Service cites three main reasons: Poverty, corrupt governments, and conflicts among nations. Poverty and hunger create an especially vicious cycle because each causally contributes to the other.

Five million children die annually from hunger-related afflictions such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and measles.

Lack of necessary nutrients also has tragic effects. Shortages and their effects include Vitamin A (blindness), iron (anemia) and iodine (mental health troubles).

by Michael Thompson, Contributing Writer

Parishioners may wonder what their churches can do to help the homeless, other than to raise funds or to donate food to a shelter.

Bridge of Hope, organized through Evangelicals for Social Action, offers another option -- adopt one homeless family, and personally help pave the way toward permanent solutions through stable housing, gainful employment, personal growth and positive friendships. "It can be daunting to consider the needs of all homeless families in the United States," acknowledges Edith Yoder, Bridge of Hope national director.

But then, notes Yoder, the number of churches also is large. "If each church reaches out to one homeless family, one by one we can make a difference," Yoder says. Bridge of Hope provides professional training for churches, or combinations of churches, to operate their own support projects.

So far, Bridge of Hope supports 17 local affiliates in seven states through Evangelicals for Social Acton, which also publishes PRISM magazine in the spirit of the Bible's Numbers 13: 19, 20; What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? ... How is the soul? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land."

by Lyn Lomasi, Staff Writer
(c) Lyn Lomasi
Sometimes people get overwhelmed with trying to help their favorite causes by making things more difficult than they need to be. Advocating for the homeless is no different.

You don't need to be the leader of a huge organization or a millionaire to help the homeless. Advocating for those faced with homelessness can be achieved with ordinary acts.

Bake pies for the local shelter program
While people living on the streets could use more wholesome meals, maybe pie baking is your gift. Your pies could be a welcome addition after a balanced meal at the local soup kitchen. Pies may not be an absolute necessity. But comfort foods can help bring back good memories. Plus, even when you're homeless, you deserve a nice treat now and then too.

Give blankets to homeless kids
Are you good at sewing? Maybe you're just good at shopping. Either way, try donating blankets that homeless kids can use. A blanket may seem like a simple thing to you or me. But many homeless people go without blankets every day and children are our most vulnerable citizens.

Volunteer for uncommon activities
Do you know of a local shelter or other organization for the homeless? Try volunteering to read to kids, teach kids to read, do a magic show, take a family on a fun outing, and more. There are many possibilities. Volunteering to do the uncommon things can make a big difference, even when the act seems small.

About the Author:

Lyn is a freelance web journalist and the Community Advocate at Yahoo! Contributor Network She's also the founder of Write W.A.V.E. Media, parent company to and several others. She enjoys helping freelance writers succeed and supports advocacy through journalism. Lyn has been published all over the web with major media companies, as well as smaller businesses and organizations. Contact Lyn for guidance in the world of freelance writing.

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Twitter: @LynLomasi