When seeing the extreme poverty that exists on the streets of America, with gaunt men wearing tattered clothes like refugees from a war-torn region, I sometimes think we are still living in Upton Sinclair’s version of early-1900s America.
But Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, was about the plight of America’s workers, not homelessness. Nevertheless, his themes would have been the same if he had been writing about the state of homelessness today – poverty, hopelessness, a dearth of social programs, and harsh living conditions.
Walk down the streets just east of downtown Los Angeles, and you will enter an urban jungle filled with people who live and are treated like animals. It’s called Skid Row.
Supposedly good-hearted people make compassionate visits to this jungle, open their car doors, and toss food right out in the open. It reminds me of a zookeeper tossing bread to caged bears.
Drugs and crime are prevalent. People sleep in tents or under blankets on the sidewalks. Disease is common. You definitely don’t want to walk through this jungle at night.
This is no Disney’s The Jungle Book.
There’s a different jungle in the non-urban parts of this country. Just travel to the heart of America’s technology giants: Silicon Valley. On the outskirts of this Wi-Fi-loving, coffee-sipping, smartphone-embracing land, sits the largest homeless encampment in the country. They call it the Jungle.
The Jungle is just like Los Angeles’ Skid Row – people bringing food, tents everywhere, sickness, drug dealing, and crime. But instead of concrete and glass buildings, this jungle has walls made of trees and brush.
The Jungle, whether in the city or out in the bush, is just another example of this country’s approach to poverty and homelessness: Out of sight, out of mind. Forget spending money to help these people re-enter society, just let them live away from us. Far away.
Allowing the Jungle to exist, with its makeshift homes with no running water or electricity, is so much easier than figuring out how to raise millions, if not billions, of dollars to build more affordable housing. It is easier than paying for costly housing vouchers to get people into existing rental units, and much easier than building shelters that no one wants in their neighborhood.
I wonder if, when Sinclair was writing about his country’s “jungle” conditions, he was penning a description of the past, or a prophetic picture of the future? Sounds like both.