When Emma Lazarus wrote the line about "the homeless, tempest-tossed" for the Statue of Liberty, she could easily have been standing near Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park. An estimated 4,500 people in the state are homeless and tossed by tempests this year. And though "street people" are often considered as aspect of big city life, the homeless show up from Hyrum to Hanksville. In fact, at least 40 percent of them move about in family units.
And this winter, when the biting winds can kill as well as chill, we urge Utahns to be generous with their donations to help the stranded.
State tax return forms provide an opportunity for residents to contribute to a variety of worthy causes. We urge taxpayers to consider them all. But we urge them to take a special look at the box set aside for donations to the homeless trust fund of the Utah Division of Community Development and fill in the amount they can spare, from $2 on up.
Last year $150,000 was gathered for the cause. This year, according to homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson, $2 million is needed. The fund has shriveled from $300,000 in 1989 to just half that amount in 2003. The needs, however, have grown and expanded.
It is understandable why some citizens balk about pitching in to help the homeless. Many, indeed, are on the street because of bad choices. Drugs and alcohol — often forms of "self-medication" for transients — play a role in many destitute lives. More solid citizens are also hesitant to give a hand-out to someone who appears to be perfectly capable of pulling himself up by his bootstraps.
Looks, however, can be deceiving.
Many homeless people have become wanderers because of personal economic disasters and mental illness. Some appear strong and stable when just the opposite is true. Many times children, who can't be seen, suffer because of the sins and situation of their fathers. Sorting through all the pretenses and seeing the true tragedies is a difficult task; so difficult, in fact, we suggest that taxpayers leave justice for Someone with perfect insight. The Book of Proverbs says that mocking the poor is the same as reproaching their Maker. And an old maxim claims there's really only one occupation in heaven: beggar.
Our lot should be one of sharing. An open hand merits an open heart. As Montaigne put it, "Poverty of possessions may easily be cured, but poverty of soul, never."
This tax season is a good time to work on a cure for the former in the lives of others and try to avoid the latter in our own.