Many of you may have read our main story last Saturday, “School districts help local homeless students in many ways.” I can tell you this: Last week’s story is only the beginning — we’re going to be looking deeper into the issue of homelessness in the region, be it singles, family, unaccompanied students, etc.
As outlined in our story, our school districts appear to have a handle on the situation — programs and assistance are in place to ensure these students are cared for in the best possible way.
I applaud their efforts.
But in general, I believe homelessness is a problem often neglected. It’s become a “pet project” for celebrities — both local and national — and they barely touch the surface of the issue.
One of The Sun’s journalists reported there were 23,964 homeless students in Kentucky in January 2019. Our report indicated 2,446 of that number were unaccompanied, “2,799 were unsheltered at night and 1,003 lived in hotels.” Kentucky had the 15th-most number of homeless students in the U.S.
Generally speaking, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, as of January 2019, the state had an estimated 4,079 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of that, 313 were family households, 447 were veterans, 211 were unaccompanied young adults (18-24), and 534 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.
In the United States, 17 out of every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night (January 2019) during HUD’s Annual Point-In-Time Count.
However, those were mere estimates — the total number of homeless people in the U.S. ranges from 600,000 to more than 1.5 million.
Some reports indicate about 2% of the world’s population are considered homeless, and the number is expected to grow because of the economic impacts of COVID-19.
Governments have their own definitions of what is considered homeless, and if you look, the language is buried beneath jargon. No life. No emotion. It’s just a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo.
These are people, and they have stories just like everyone else. And those stories have been hidden in legalese, without regard to what it really means to be homeless. It’s all about statistics, right?
As with a couple of my past columns, I’d like to share one such story. I’ve told this one numerous times, and written about my friend in a couple of instances.
The context of this one appeared in the USA Today Network:
Whatever the official (or legal) definition of homelessness might be, millions of people worldwide are homeless. More so than in industrialized nations, the number of homeless families with children in third-world and developing countries is so high it becomes an everyday part of the fabric of each major city for those who live there.
Children are often seen working in the streets alongside their parents, selling everything from chewing gum to cigarettes. Some would even resort to pimping their own children to sex-starved foreigners who are lustfully looking for their next prey.
Every Sunday after church, beggars are lined up at the door, hoping to get a coin here and there from parishioners who have just heard a sermon about giving to the poor and taking care of the orphans and the widows.
At a far corner near a bus stop, half-naked children play near a canal filled with raw sewage and garbage dumped by passersby and residents alike.
Americans often see images like these on television commercials and brochures from charitable institutions, asking for help in sponsoring a child or a family. It is often true that some of the families in those advertisements are homeless, but the official definition of the word does not mean anything to them. It is their way of life, a prison they can never escape.
Thirty-one years ago, I was covering the crime-ridden city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, when these images unfolded in front of my eyes in a way I never imagined. Sure, I grew up seeing homeless people, but it was so normal that I never thought twice about it.
To me, they are just part of the culture, the ills of a corrupt society. They are nothing but statistics, until that one night in September 1990.
I responded to a call of a shooting — one of about 12 or so that night — when I met a man who introduced himself as Ernesto, but adamantly told me to call him Nestor.
Nestor was not involved in the shooting, but rather a resident of a cardboard box neatly situated near the crime scene. Detectives interviewed and later released him, but not before giving him loose change for coffee.
It was outside the police station that I was prompted to follow Nestor as he went back to his cardboard box. There, I realized he had some mental issues, but his answers still were coherent. He told me he did not know his last name, nor did he remember where he came from and how he ended up homeless.
Nestor said he had been living in his cardboard box for several years, changing it from time to time. His face that night had cuts and bruises — he said two other homeless men assaulted him the night prior while trying to steal his “home.”
Since that chance meeting, I made it a point to visit Nestor every couple of days to see if he was still around — I tried to get him to a shelter, but he refused to leave his box. So, it was inside this box that Nestor and I shared meals, cracked jokes and talked about life.
During that time, I was able to better know the man, met some of his “homeless” buddies, who told me no shelter would take them, so they often slept on the steps of a nearby church. When it rained, they would find a tree somewhere and sleep under it.
During one of our many conversations, Nestor said he had no recollection of having a family, and he highly doubted if anyone even knew he existed — well, except the cops who once in a while would bust him for vagrancy.
People, he said, were afraid to even touch him because he was filthy and smelled like rotting garbage.
Later that month, I was reassigned to cover the military. I told Nestor I would be back to see him the first chance I got.
As I walked away from the alley, I looked back and glanced at my friend. He had a smile on his face as he waved from a distance. He took another look at me as he walked toward his box, his home. There was a chill in the air right before I got in my car. I drove away just as the rain started falling.
I thought about circling the block to see if Nestor was keeping dry, but decided not to — the Army Ranger taking me to a military base camp was waiting at the airport.
That would be the last time I would see my friend.
One official told me of finding Nestor dead one evening. With no known family, he was buried in a government plot, where most of the homeless of Manila are laid to rest.
And like many, Nestor was logged as an “unknown male,” in the government’s books. He, like those who came before him, had become simply a statistic.
Nestor died as he lived — alone.
To this day I still wonder if anyone ever cried for him.
John Mangalonzo is the editor of The Paducah Sun. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @jmangalonzo.