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Commentary: Miami attack highlights need to defend the homeless

It is well known that life can end at any moment, under any circumstance. We also know that life can lead us through a peculiar path — one day we are overwhelmed with glory, then something happens that submerges us into misery. Likewise, we are aware of the degradation of some human beings who become capable of committing bestial acts.

All of that knowledge is theoretical, though. We know it and it does not rob us of our sleep because it has not knocked on our doors.

The recent episode of cannibalism that shocked the community combines these three realities in their crudest exposure. It’s like a pitcher of ice water poured on our heads to make us take a close-up look at a very dark facet of life.

Perhaps that fear has brought to the surface all types of prejudices and phobias in the last few days about one of the most marginalized segments of our society: the homeless.

Negative feelings toward this vulnerable population cannot be explained with logic, particularly in this case where the victim, Ronald Poppo, 65, was a homeless man. This should not surprise us. In incidents of violence, a homeless person is more likely to be a victim than the attacker.

At least something positive can come out of this macabre tragedy. The lesson here lies on the few details that we know of Poppo’s life. One wonders how a young man who graduated from an exclusive New York high school could end up living under a bridge in Miami. It delivers the sad truth that anyone can end up homeless, forever adrift.

Living without a roof is traumatic. These people lack the protection of a home, a community. They are marginalized, isolated, stigmatized.

In the United States, there area 671,859 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Additionally, 1.5 million people use an emergency shelter in the course of a year. These numbers include people of all origins — families with children, single adults, senior citizens, veterans and teenagers. It’s a scourge that prevails in rural areas, small towns, suburban neighborhoods and big cities.

We should not be blinded by the stigma. They do not choose their misfortune. Multiple causes force them to life on the streets, the loss of a job, a foreclosure. In the case of chronic homeless, they can suffer from a mental disorder that separates them from their families or other health problems and traumas that push them to drugs or alcohol to deal with the pain. In the case of women, they are often survivors of rape or domestic violence.

The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust conducts a survey which gathers data to pinpoint causes of homelessness. In January, of the 868 homeless men and women on Miami-Dade’s streets, 584 had a documented mental illness. That represents 67 percent.

“These are not people to fear, rather people who need our help to get off the streets into appropriate treatment”, said the Trust’s executive director, David Raymond.

The popular belief, however, is that someone homeless is a drug addict, vagrant, thief or too lazy to work. Those are myths founded on misperceptions or folklore.

Remember, the person you see dirty on the street in someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, sister or brother.

Our society punishes this segment of the community for the single reason of not having a home, an adversity for which they cannot always be blamed.

These prejudices distance us from them and become impediments to helping them get off the streets. Add to that recipe of misery the lack of resources to rebuild their lives.

The social and economic cost of having people living on the streets is too high; we taxpayers pick up the tab. However, the investment is not enough, which pushes many to sleep in public spaces and beg on corners and highway ramps, at times to pay for their addictions. Seeing them validates the stereotype and inevitably perpetuates the myth that all homeless people are vagabonds.

It’s true that some homeless people refuse to accept the help that is offered them. In Poppo’s case, he once threw rocks at outreach workers who approached him. Several times he took refuge in local shelters and later walked out. His behavior was incomprehensible. Not even some of his relatives — who didn’t even know he was alive — have been able to explain the elements that spiraled his decline and separated him from his family.

Poppo was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was completely random. But when you’re homeless, in a sense, every place is the wrong place because no place is yours. And when no place is your place, anytime you’re there can quickly become the wrong time.