Early in the afternoon of the 20th day of our government shutdown, I took my daily two-mile walk in Oak Park. The weather was seasonably brisk. I noticed a tall man on Marion Street, between North Boulevard and Lake Street. He was one of the numerous beggars frequenting that location.

As I walked past him, he said in a quivering voice, “Please help a Vietnam veteran.” The tone of his voice reached into my depths. Mention of Vietnam stopped me. I turned around and looked at him. The hood of his winter coat cast a shadow on his features. I stepped toward him for a closer look. He was impoverished but not disheveled. The white stubble of his beard contrasted with his dark skin. He was a portrait of dignity and distinction.

“A Vietnam veteran?” I asked. In a military manner he replied, “Yes, sir!” I asked, “In which branch of the military did you serve?” 

“In the Army, sir,” he replied. He also named the division, battalion and some familiar sounding Vietnam locations of his service. I believed him.

I reached into my pocket and brought out my wallet. I felt no apprehension that the beggar might grab it and run. Not at his age. The aging man looked on. There was only one dollar in my billfold. I carry very little cash on my walks. I gave the dollar to the veteran and remarked, “It looks like you got my last dollar.” 

He smiled and said, “You probably have a few more waiting at home.” I smiled and nodded. He thanked me and invoked God’s blessings upon me.

I walked on with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

A few steps further up the street a newspaper vending box showed a headline, “President Trump threatens to declare a national emergency.” The sight triggered a churning of my emotions. A moment ago, I had been face to face with our “true national emergency.” It was only one man, but he represented the suffering of thousands like him.  Scattered, lost, and ignored throughout our communities, they come out from the shadows to seek tokens of pity. They served our country, but their American dreams became nightmares. They were cast off from the mainstream of life. 

Homelessness in America ought to be declared a national emergency!

In 2018 there were 554,000 individuals homeless or unsheltered in the United Sates. 40,000 of them were veterans (Wikipedia). Those statistics dwarf the numbers of refugees in caravans from Central America. Spending five billion dollars for relief for our veterans and other homeless would be compassionate and wiser than building a wall to stand off our beleaguered neighbors. Likely, the wall would represent America’s declaration of bankruptcy to respond to humanitarian crises.

Shutting the government down, Trump created a national emergency. His tantrum disrupted the livelihood of 800,000 workers and excluded them from the “America First” consideration. Our government workers should not have been victimized in a political squabble. 

America cannot claim greatness when it has no compassion.

Fred Natkevi is a longtime Oak Park resident.

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