Hallelujah, I'm a Bum?

This article by the former director of the Salt Lake City Public Library points out that libraries are frequently on the front lines of caring for the homeless mentally ill.

Cheesy as it is, I'm reminded of a very heavy-handed pair of early episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which Sisko, Dax, and Bashir are sent back to early 21st-century San Francisco. Sisko and Bashir are arrested for sleeping in the streets and sent to live in the city's homeless ghetto, which is locked at night and is far worse than even the original ghetto. Yet despite the sheer isolation and dehumanization everyone faces there, the place depicted in that episode is somehow better than the solution we have now: if you fail in the system, you're out. Sleep on the streets, eat from the trash, and when it's cold, try to make the best of it in the library.

There are some people for whom this is a temporary situation, and others for whom this is a deliberate choice. Even since the earliest days of transience, though, there has been a system for describing the differences between these groups: as Ben Wrightman used to say, "A hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, a bum drinks and wanders." We know what to do with hobos (give them a good job); we know what to do with tramps (let them be tramps). What we do with bums--who drink, who do drugs, who doing neither still murmur down the corridors of their minds--is unfortunately what we do with tramps: let them be bums. And again, Chip Ward is right: we have to do something better. In the words of that old traveling nation poem:

Make the intelligent, organized choice
Get rid of the weights that crush
Don't worry about the bum on the rods
Get rid of the bum on the plush.

Only by taking money out of the hands of the apathetic rich, and putting it not into churches that do nothing or ponzi schemes that do little, put it where it belongs: in shelters full of well-trained people whose sole goal in life is to live in a world where they, and not their clients, don't have jobs any more.


Anonymous said...

It reads like U Utah Phillips wrote it. It is likely the librarian knows Phillips, a well known hobo and labor activist, and a prolific story teller. I recommend "The Telling Takes Me Home" and "Loafers' Glory"

Anonymous said...

The writings of Ammon Hennacy, a Phillips mentor and life-long rebel, humanist, social activist are archived in the Marriot Library up the hill from SLC Public.