Matt Grifferty: Protecting the huddled masses

As the cold weather sets in, it is hard to grasp where the empathy has gone. After walking a friend to a work-study job last Thursday, I was met by music at Franklin Square on 13th and K streets. A large crowd of people had gathered, some with signs, some shouting and others just looking on. They were protesting D.C.’s recent decision to close Franklin Shelter. This decision leaves many with no shelter.

One cannot walk down a street in D.C. without seeing someone impoverished. Homeless and beggars line streets from Columbia Heights to Capitol Hill – as many as 15,000, according to The Washington Post. Even if you stay on GW’s Foggy Bottom campus, you still encounter poverty.

It never ceases to amaze that in a country so full of wealth and prosperity, so many can be forgotten. We are dejected by images of the poor in countries around the world, but very few seem to give consideration to the 744,000 who sleep on streets in this country, according to a national estimate in 2005, only miles away from our own beds. It would be foolish to say we should ignore the millions who live in poverty around the world, but we cannot forget our fellow citizens.

This city’s decision to remove homeless from Franklin Shelter is not simply appalling, but immoral. The hypocrisy of a country whose Lady Liberty says “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me” is astounding. Our government is out of sorts.

What can be done to end poverty, unemployment and homelessness? There is much this country should do for its people. The city of Washington can start by reopening Franklin Shelter, which was closed by Mayor Fenty with no reason offered. Reopening Franklin or opening alternate shelter options could help to improve the fallback options for those who have no place of shelter – a number likely to increase in the economic downturn.

Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin like to joke that Sen. Barack Obama’s tax plans equate to “spreading the wealth around,” but what about that is funny? A socialist country is not desirable, but if this country decreases the number of impoverished, homeless and unemployed, it would see improvements in other areas. Urban crime would decrease because living standards would increase, and the economy would be less volatile with a stronger middle class.

Real solutions are hard to find. On one hand, our country does not want to sacrifice the free market or give more control to its government. On the other hand, as the economy continues to unravel, people are more willing. Regardless of the man sitting in the Oval Office in January, there will be need for strong, firm and plucky leadership to turn this tide and solve the real problems facing this country.

As students moan about furnaces overheating their rooms, people lie freezing in the streets. It is hard not to see the hypocrisy of sitting here in Starbucks trying to speak on behalf of the homeless only feet away on the streets.

Yet maybe our student body is where a movement to eradicate poverty can begin. Our city and country have problems enough that students could ignore poverty with little guilt, but imagine if we did not. Imagine if for only one week students donated the money they would spend on coffee to help D.C.’s poverty-stricken. That would be a pretty big start.

The writer is a freshman majoring in journalism.

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