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The Dilemma with the Homeless
If you've been to San Francisco lately, then you know homelessness is a big problem. It's impossible to go anywhere in the city without being confronted by panhandlers and other individuals living in exile. More and more common is the frowzy vagabond with the sign "Homeless. Will work for food. God Bless." Even outside urban communities, this has become a prevalence at busy intersections and freeway off-ramps. I'm not trying to say homelessness is a newly emerging problem in our society. I'm sure homeless people have been around since the Pilgrims left Europe in search of religious freedom. However, the situation has escalated to such a degree in the last ten years that it's obviously now a chronic problem that our government is trying to write off. Ironically, as the number of homeless families increase across our beloved country, so do corporate profits. Driving right past the beggar on the street corner are sixty thousand dollar automobiles with passengers too busy to stop and throw out a dollar to help feed a hungry American with no place to live. Something is very wrong with that picture. I once had the misfortune of being stranded in San Francisco in the middle of the night. My car was stolen, I had no money and no one to call. I went to an all-night restaurant to escape the cold and sat on a couch in the lobby to think about what I was going to do. After about thirty minutes, I was approached by a squalid gentleman who asked if I needed a place to stay. A little hesitant, I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. We walked a couple blocks to a shelter for homeless people. My guide said his name was Evan, and the place we were going wasn't exactly the Hilton, but it was safe. It was an empty government building in the Civic Center area. The smell was horrendous; a mixture of BO, bad breath and urine. The sleeping area was a bare room, no furniture, with literally hundreds of people sleeping on the floor. I didn't think I was going to be able to stay because of the loud snoring and bad smell of the other occupants. Evan sensed my discomfort and began to tell me a story about how he came to be homeless. He had worked as a long distance operator at AT&T for several years. He told me of the new supercomputers for operator services which AT&T had installed called OSPS. Evan was one of thousands of AT&T employees who were laid off because of the downsizing which the new system created. All over, offices were closed and services centralized to one location. AT&T was now able to provide the same services with only one quarter the employees. This large reduction in payroll could only mean greater savings for profit sharing. Thanks to the computer, people like Evan were no longer needed. Downsizing is not exclusive to the long distance industry. Nationwide lay offs have infiltrated almost every business around the world. Since the advancement in computing technologies, it is now possible to accomplish the same amount of work with a fraction of the effort it took fifty years ago. No wonder Bill Gates, the leader of Microsoft Corp., is the richest man in the country. Since increasing profit is the ultimate goal of any business, it's no surprise that the job market is shrinking. More and more, computers are taking the place of laborers, manufacturers, clerks, attendants and other workers. Politicians preach that when elected to office, their policies will create so many thousands of jobs, and unemployment will be cut back to a normal percentile. The streets of San Francisco tell me differently. What looks good on paper is a nice fat bottom line, and that is what ultimately will steer the decision-makers in today's corporations. One of the most blatant examples of corporate greed is the recent operational changes at Nike Corp. This leader in the athletic shoe industry has used a manufacturing tactic that is not only harmful to the U.S. economy, it's downright immoral. When the shoe barons realized that production expenses were becoming increasingly costly here in America, (i.e. employee wages, safety regulations, operational taxes) they decided it was more profitable to lay off all the American production workers, close plants in the United States, and move business to a country free from federal regulations and a minimum wage requirement. It was reported that in 1994, the net bonus (in the millions) paid to the C.E.O. of Nike Corp. was more than the gross yearly income of all citizens of the Asian community combined where the manufacturing plant now operates. This figure I'm sure also exceeds the amount paid out in unemployment checks to American workers as a result of the operation change. It's also reported that the workers at Nike are paid so little, they cannot afford housing and live in a make-shift shanty town outside the plant and many are grossly malnourished. ("Flashpoints", KPFA broadcast, May 1995.) Nike is certainly not the only company to take jobs away from American workers. The fact is, business executives realize that if the same job can be done somewhere else paying workers considerably less than the $ 4.35 per hour minimum wage as it is here in the U.S., why not make the move and generate a bigger profit? Most favorable is the machine that can replace the workforce as computers do not require a salary, benefits, workers compensation, overtime pay, or breaks. Whether or not you agree that corporations are at fault, the problem of homeless people in America is growing. I don't see how federal politicians can talk about cutting the Welfare program when already millions of people in this country aren't able to afford adequate housing. If current trends continue into the next century, we will be tripping over people who have no other alternative than to set up camp in the middle of the street. Propositions like M which Mayor Jordan tried to pass in San Francisco, which would make it unlawful for any person to lie down in the middle of the street and therefore obstruct the flow of commerce, would be impossible to enforce. Worse yet, we may be the ones to get tripped over by the multi-millionaires.


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