Tables groan under familiar dishes. Relatives and friends gather to gossip, argue and break bread together. After sharing Thanksgiving meals, most Americans return to their own homes unless they are among the more than half a million people who have no place to go home to.
In this, the wealthiest nation in history, we have become inured to lines of people waiting to get a bed in a shelter, rows of tents pitched on city sidewalks and people pushing shopping carts loaded with bundles. Homelessness has become a horrible new normal.
Thanksgiving provides a welcome break for many of these Americans. Churches and social service agencies organize meals of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Restaurants even get into the spirit of this celebration of plenty.
The harshness of this new normal sets back in by Friday, the day after the holiday.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that more than half a million people are without permanent shelter on any given night. A third live in their cars.
One quarter of the homeless are children. If they are boys, they often are kicked out of shelters to fend for themselves on the streets. The nation allows children to live under those bridges or in those cars or to huddle in those doorways.
The stereotypical image of homelessness is a ragged figure shuffling behind a shopping cart or slumped on a bus bench. But homelessness often happens because of a job loss, the loss of the family breadwinner or domestic violence.
If, as HUD says, almost two in 10 citizens are homeless, the reality is that the person putting gas in the car next to yours might have no place to sleep tonight.
Homelessness is not always a symptom of personal weakness or moral turpitude. It is actually a symptom of an America that is not functioning at its best.
Sometimes preventing homelessness takes only a little help, like a providing the few hundred dollars a family needs to get over an emergency. Solving institutional homelessness will require more.
Thankfully, a country whose historic roots include the vision and courage of the Pilgrims can solve the crisis of homelessness if we make it the priority it should be.
This “new normal” would be worthy of celebration.