View from Rue Saint-Georges

Of Poverty and Plenty

California’s homelessness crisis is a moral stain

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | March 27, 2019
Geoff Livingston/Flickr
Geoff Livingston/Flickr

Driving the other day from my Paris apartment to the airport, I passed the refugee encampment that has cropped up outside the Porte de la Chappelle, along the overpass of the Boulevard Périphérique. I have never grown accustomed to seeing it and don’t want to. It’s horrific that a modern society can tolerate such human suffering. But then, refugees are foreigners, and we have found ways to numb ourselves to their plight.

I flew to Los Angeles, and as frequently happens when I return to the United States from Europe, I was immediately impressed by the wealth this country possesses, even in comparison to other Western democracies. But as we drove to my hotel downtown, I was met with images I had seen years ago as a college student but had forgotten—the apocalyptic scenes of human suffering that are squeezed in the blocks comprising Skid Row and its environs. Most shocking is the degree to which this wretchedness—that of what appeared to be American citizens in a state as rich as the richest European nations—surpasses that of the refugees in Europe fleeing war and famine. Skid Row is worse than the dispersed remnants of the developing world that hang on in Paris.

As I marveled at what was unfolding outside my window, a car outfitted with cameras and followed by a police escort zipped past, filming for the movies—about as apt a metaphor for our willed obliviousness and indifference to each other as any I could imagine. I don’t pretend to know what the solution is to this problem, but I do know that the presence of these pockets of hell in such prosperous societies amounts to a moral stain that is absolutely damning.

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