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Homeless Holidays

Mike Keefe illustrates the hypocrisy of charity that often occurs around the holidays.

Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, chronic homelessness is overwhelmingly present in the United States. This reality does not register in its entirety in the mind of many Americans until the”season of giving” is marked not only on the calendar, but also through the communal holley, twinkling lights, and oversized trees present in public places: Christmas time. Denver Post political cartoonist Mike Keefe illustrates the irony often present between the “season of giving” and homelessness in America in his cartoon published on Christmas Eve in 2010 titled, “Homeless Holidays.”

“Homeless Holidays” shows a young child running toward a homeless man with an eager smile on his face and change in his hand. His parents are walking behind him with a smile on their faces and shopping bags in their hands. The homeless man is slumped over on the sidewalk next to a sign that says, “anything helps.” The boy is saying, “I wish all homelessness would disappear!” The homeless man replies, “Don’t worry, we’ll become invisible again on December 26th.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identifies a homeless person as “someone who resides in a place not meant for human inhabitation,” including the street, a sidewalk, etc. (United States, Government Accountability Office [Page 4]). Much like the Great Depression, the recent Great Recession in 2009 reintroduced the country to intense homelessness of men, women, families, and unattached children. Perhaps one of the most troubling statistics of this most recent country-wide economic downturn is the thirty percent increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2009 (United States, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness [Page 8]). In response to the troubles citizens began facing, President Barack Obama soon instituted the Opening Doors policy in May 2009. This policy aimed to end chronic homelessness in ten years, and veteran and familial homelessness in five (United States, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness [Page 4]).

Opening Doors was one of the first policies of its kind—never before has an American president introduced legislation so specific and so galvanizing in the discussion of eradicating homelessness. However, the state of homelessness in the U.S. has taken on a face unlike that of the past. Traditionally in recessions and depressions people lost their homes due to the inability to maintain a steady and subsistent job, but the issue many face today is the increase in the cost of housing (“The State of Homelessness in America”). This is why, despite the increase in job availability, there are still 4.8 million people living in poverty (“The State of Homelessness in America”). In his open letter that discussed the reasons and means behind the policy, President Obama cited “‘home as being the center of the American dream” (United States, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness [Page 4]). Introducing this platform appeals to the reader’s pathos, and makes them more apt to listen to the continuous plan he intended to institute. This plan included providing the homeless with apartments in which the government paid the rent—allowing the homeless to achieve the “American dream” that is idolized by many, yet is unachievable in the minds of others (United States, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness [Page 4]).

The Opening Doors policy is working. According to an article published by Dina ElBoghdady in the Washington Post on October 31, 2014 titled “These five charts show the progress and challenges in fighting homelessness,” there was a decrease between 2010 and 2014 of ten percent in overall homelessness, thirty-three percent in veteran homelessness, and sharp decline in the use of temporary shelters. However, the plan has yet to create an all-encompassing, completely housed society. While there are less homeless people in the U.S. than there were in 2010, the program requires more money than initially called for in the original legislation— $300 million, to be exact— and many people remain unsheltered and without a home (ElBoghdady). Regardless, there is still support for the administration’s efforts to decrease homelessness. While the plan has not been instituted at the speed it originally called for, the U.S. government is spending $4.5 billion a year in efforts to lessen the evils that are synonymous with homelessness (“The state of homelessness in America” 4). The Secretary of HUD, Julian Castro, was quoted in the Washington Post article saying, “we’re confident that we’re not only saving lives, we’re saving money because folks are no longer caught in the cycle of shelters, emergency rooms and other public services that require taxpayer dollars” (ElBoghdady).

The viewer can easily understand the  satirical outlook the artist has taken strictly via the dialogue between the young child and the homeless man sitting on the street. The child is saying, “I wish all homelessness would disappear!” The homeless man replies, “Don’t worry, we will become invisible again on December 26th.” The “season of joy” and “spirit of giving” will run out— demonstrating the seasonality of homelessness assumed by the public.
The child is part of a nuclear family that appears to be well-off financially, as seen by the parents walking behind their young son carrying shopping bags. The parents have a nearly adoring look in their eyes as they watch their young son run to the homeless man with change, completely ignorant of the struggles he faces day-to-day. Their focus is on the fact that their son is sharing charitable actions with the world, rather than the actual depravity of the circumstance the child is “helping.” This illustrates the disconnect many Americans experience with their fellow citizens who are homeless. There is a concerning failure to understand that the people on the streets begging for food are, in fact, people, and are living a life many could not imagine.

This seasonality many place on homelessness is not entirely ignored by the general public. Bonnie Kavoussi published an article on Huffington Post’s website concerning the issue that consisted of minimal writing and an infographic courtesy of the website Thinkprogress. The article explained that the amount of money the citizens of the U.S. spend on Christmas decorations every year could eradicate homelessness. $20 billion is the price tag on the countless decorative trees and lights Americans buy every year— and it could cure homelessness and even leave a surplus of funds (Kavoussi).

Homelessness unfortunately is a topic that has transcended time. While government assistance programs have helped in the past, it is yet to be completely eradicated. Obama’s concept of “opening doors” is a chronic and universal one— John Knott even indirectly addressed it in his cartoon “Somebody’s at the Door,” which was published in 1931. In it, we see a family standing in front of a closed door of a prominent charity at the time, a family who is not receiving the Christmas charity so often celebrated by the mass public. This proves that there are several aspects of society that will always be present. However, despite their immortality, we as a society can still learn from mistakes and progresses made in the past, and use then to influence decisions and policy in the future.

Works Cited:

ElBoghdady, Dina. “These Five Charts Show the Progress and Challenges in Fighting Homelessness.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 31 Oct. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Kavoussi, Bonnie. “U.S. Could End Homelessness With Money Used To Buy Christmas Decorations [INFOGRAPHIC].” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

“Obama Vows to End Homelessness in 10 Years.” Mcclatchydc. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

“The State of Homelessness in America.” National Alliance to End Homelessness. Web. 20 Nov 2015.

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. Washington: GPO, 2015. United Sates Interagency Council on Homelessness. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

United States. Government Accountability Office. Homelessness: A Common Vocabulary Could Help Agencies Collaborate and Collect More Consistent Data. 111th Cong., 2nd sess. Rept. 702. Washington: GPO, 2010.  ProQuest Congressional. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

“Somebody at the Door”

John Knott illustrated the lack of effective governmental policies and public intervention regarding the problem of hunger and homelessness in Dallas during the Great Depression.
John Knott illustrated the lack of effective governmental policies and public intervention regarding the problem of hunger and homelessness in Dallas during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression will forever be remembered as a time in America of great trials and tribulations, especially hunger and homelessness. John Knott effectively localized these concepts to the Dallas metropolitan area through his cartoon titled “Somebody at the Door,” which ran on December 16, 1931 in the Dallas Morning News. In the cartoon, Knott depicted a family standing outside a door that has a wreath with “Merry Christmas” written on it. There is a note in the bottom right-hand corner that says “Citizens Emergency Relief Fund,” and claims that every dollar donated to the said cause it attributed to feeding the “hungry of Dallas.” Significantly, a mother and her three children are standing outside, and there is an absence of a father figure. The youngest child is knocking on the door, and the middle child is expressing hunger to his mother, the figure that for so long was the provider of food in the family. In this way, the viewer understands the absolute desperation the homeless population of the Great Depression faced; all previous typicalities of life turned into unattainable luxuries, and the guaranteed home-cooked meal that was so long provided daily turned into a search for a charitable soul that would spare scraps of food.

By the end of 1930, the population of jobless people in Dallas was around seven percent. This statistic was uncharacteristic of Dallas, a city that had recently experienced an economic boom due to industries such as banking and railroads and was on the road to a population that exhibited extreme wealth(Hill 204). The city had a sixty-four percent growth rate between 1920 and 1930, and the elites of Dallas viewed their city as a progressive city with conservative politics (WPA 96). However, the atmosphere quickly changed in the 30s. Initially, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 was slow to affect Dallas due to its recent status as a business mecca (WPA 96). However, the turn of the decade brought intense unemployment, homelessness, and even labor strikes. In 1931, the emergency relief committee requested the city government allocate $100,000 to help abate the atrocities of poverty and hunger that encompassed the city, and were bound to intensify as time continued(WPA 96). It is unfortunate to note that the majority of the little charity that was given by the people and government of Dallas was racially driven; the rise of the KKK in Dallas in the 1920s fueled racial tensions in the city that resulted in refusal of charity to blacks by many privately funded organizations—even religious charities such as the Salvation Army (Kusmer 196). This was one of the many examples of the absolute corruption present in Dallas at the time, which was further explained in both a news and editorial article that ran on December 16, 1931 in the Dallas Morning News.

The news story, titled “$1,000 sent to stave off starving,” discussed the first $1,000 donated to the emergency relief fund. Nathan Adams, president of the First National Bank in Dallas, was grateful for the generosity of the large anonymous donation, but did not fail to point out that there were many other able donors in the Dallas area. “Dallas is an affluent city, the resources of which have not been impaired by economic activity,” Adams said in an interview with the Morning News. He further pointed out that, while one individual paid his part, it was only one percent of the total amount of money needed to ensure the hungry ate that winter (“$1,000 Sent to Stave off Starving [Page 1]).

The editorial, “Hungry Christmas?” capitalized on that same sentiment, and appealed to the ethos of the reader by explaining that that children will be “crying, not because Santa didn’t come, but because breakfast didn’t.” By employing this emotionally-driven rhetoric, the author reached out to the entire public of Dallas with the hopes the image of a child starving would encourage donations. By associating the lack of Santa and the lack of hunger, there is an underlying hope that people will think about the hypocritical greed they so often exhibit during the season of giving, and how there are essentially more pressing issues that need monetary attention than  lavish gifts (“Hungry Christmas?” [Page 2]).

The city of Dallas’ government was slow to implement policies regarding the homeless and poor on the level of the local government, yet the city still received federal funding (Rose 43). This came at a time when private charities were on the decline, as the wealthy who funded them started to decrease contributions due to the impending economic state of the country (Rose 43). As monetary backing decreased for these privatized charities, the demand for their resources increased(WPA 284). This is one of the main issues Knott illustrated in his cartoon; the lack of funding for the charities, coupled with Dallas’ slow movement of policies designed to benefit the poor and hungry, lead to a population of dismissed homeless people.

The mother in the cartoon is most likely a single mother who lost her husband to either death or divorce. Unfortunately, the first workers to loose their jobs in the 1920s were women, and government efforts to create jobs were often directed towards men, proving problematic to single women throughout the state (WPA 96-97). It is estimated that 70 percent of women who were the head of “transient” families, or families who spent much of their time illegally riding trains across the country in search of work and aid, were either widowed or separated (Kusmer 208). While Knott does not specify if the particular family depicted is transient, it is quite possible this was their fate, as Dallas was on the verge of becoming a major railroad hub before the Great Depression hit (Weinstein 115). Knott appeals to the pathos of the viewer by including young children, one of which is complaining to his mother—the figure he has relied on his whole life to cook and provide him with meals—about being hungry. These children were taught the evils of chance and possibility at a young age. Many children are naive to the concept of prolonged hunger or discomfort; for these children, hunger surpassed discomfort, and was taken to the level of a fight for survival in a world they only so recently entered.

The Great Depression favored the rich; it did not spare the lives of the poor, and completely disregarded the complexities of all human life, regardless of socioeconomic status. Many people learned to function on little to no food, as well as live off the land and accept death for what it is. This great tragedy is horrifying, yet its memorialization is essential to the American people. There is no better way to tell history than through the creative outlets of the people of the time, which is why Knott’s cartoon has proved important and survived the transience of time.

Works Cited

“$1000 sent to stave off starving.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 16 Dec. 1931, sec. II: 1. Print.

Hill, Patricia Evridge. “Dallas, Texas.” Encyclopedia of American Urban History. Ed. David Goldfield. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2007. 204-206. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

“Hungry Christmas?” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 16 Dec. 1931, sec. II: 2. Print.

Knott, John Francis. “Somebody at the Door.” Cartoon. Dallas Morning News  [Dallas] 16 Dec. 1931, sec. II: 2. Print.

Kusmer, Kenneth L. Down & Out, On The Road : The Homeless In American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Rose, Harriett DeAnn. “Dallas, Poverty, and Race: Community Action Programs in the War on Poverty.” University of North Texas, 2008. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Weinstein, Bernard L., and Terry L. Clower. “Dallas.” Encyclopedia of Homelessness. Ed. David Levinson. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2004. 103-105. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the City of Dallas, et al.. The WPA Dallas Guide And History. [Dallas, Tex.]: Dallas Public Library, Texas Center for the Book , 1992. Print. 25 October 2015.