The Nouveau Poor will always be with us

So much for promises that the New York Times would soon diverge from the media’s obsession with the Nouveau Poor. The front page of today’s Times features a profile of foreclosed homeowners who are now living in homeless shelters that is a classic of the genre:

Ms. West — mother of three grown children, grandmother to six and great-grandmother to one — passed months on the couches of friends and relatives, and in the front seat of her car.

But this fall, she exhausted all options. She had once owned and overseen a group home for homeless people. Now, she succumbed to that status herself, checking in to a shelter.

“No one could have told me that in a million years: I’d wake up in a homeless shelter,” she said. “I had a house for homeless people. Now, I’m homeless.”

The message here is clear: What kind of world are we coming to? Homeless shelters are supposed to be for homeless people! Not for people without homes!

The upside of this, and no doubt how the Times and other people rationalize running these kinds of articles over and over again, is that maybe the “There but for the grace of god” element will enable other homeowners reading this to empathize with their former peers where they might not someone who lost their home for more mundane reasons than the global economic meltdown. Whether that will spill over into caring more broadly about poor people is questionable, though, especially when reporter Peter S. Goodman writes lines like:

“These families never needed help before,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House in Santa Ana, Calif. “They haven’t a clue about where to go, and they have all sorts of humiliation issues. They don’t even know what to say, what to ask for.”

and

So, as lean times endure and paychecks disappear, homeless shelters are absorbing those who have run out of alternatives.

Unlike in normal times, when homeless shelters are occupied by people who haven’t run out of alternatives, and who certainly have no “humiliation issues.” Because, after all, they know they’re supposed to be poor.

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