HOMELESS: Invitation to a Challenge


6:30 a.m. on a Manhattan Monday and the Hudson River Park is a sight to behold. Hundreds of runners negotiate the path by the slate-grey river. On repurposed piers where ocean liners once docked, Asian fishermen set up multiple poles against the railings. Their wives do Tai Chi. Solo exercisers practice customized routines with personal trainers while large groups work out on the lawns encouraged by park-supplied cheerleaders. At park benches, sleepy transvestite prostitutes gather after a night’s work.

The parallel bike path is monopolized by men and women in somber black suits and flaming day-glo sneakers. At the financial district, two miles downtown, they drop off the bikes at a Citibike rental station and slip on respectable shoes. Then they melt into the hordes of similarly-garbed colleagues pouring out of subways to make their morning march to – not on – Wall Street.

Most of the urban athletes are in their 20’s and 30’s and look terrific. A scant handful of the participants are considerably older and limit their efforts to brisk walks. I number myself among them.

It’s hard to believe that just the previous morning, in Santa Monica, I left my rental apartment at 6:30 to walk in the Palisades Park. On the horizon, a hazy pink ribbon lay above the Pacific Ocean. In the park, the bike and jogging paths were almost empty. The exception was scores of homeless men and women sleeping or waking to another hopeless day. Which is not to say they don’t exist in New York. But when I flew in last night, it was ten degrees colder. Who wouldn’t rather be in Santa Monica?

On both coasts, homelessness is deeply disturbing. Though I don’t believe I am personally to blame, I feel guilty that I live in comfort while many do not. When I was a teenager, a top Manhattan attraction was the Bowery, famous the world over for its concentration of alcoholic derelicts. Bums, as they were commonly called. At 15, my parents let me stay with my aunt so that I could explore the city. I made a beeline for the Bowery. A few years later I visited Santa Monica for the first time. I remember being amazed at the number of people who lived on the cliffs above the beach. Not sleeping in beautiful homes but on the grass and benches and concrete bridges over the highway in what is today my favorite walking park. Not much has changed.

It’s not for lack of trying. If all the funds dedicated to helping the homeless were totaled it would be a staggering amount. Or for want of good will, which has proved equally ineffective. I would wager that the percentage of Americans who are homeless today is as great or greater than it was on my wide-eyed trip to the Bowery.

Why? I don’t know.

But I do know that government hasn’t fixed it. Both political parties have tried with program after program and the best intentions. As humanitarians, as technocrats, and as everything in between, they have spectacularly failed. So here’s my idea. Go after the top one percent.

Now that’s not a new idea, but my proposal has a twist. I’m not interested in the one percent’s monetary assets. I’m interested in their intellectual assets. When all else has failed, who better to solve the insoluble than the brilliant entrepreneurs who had the ingenuity, foresight, persistence and energy to create products and services that have transformed our society? I want to go after the brainpower of the creators of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Space X, and on and on and on.

In an interview in the January/February 2016 AARP Bulletin, Travis Kalanick, the billionaire cofounder of Uber, said about planning one’s future, “The best advice is to be excited about solving challenges and problems … and be passionate about the work and doing it well.” All right, Travis, Bill, Oprah, Larry, Elon, Richard, Sheryl, Mark, Warren, J.K. et al. You think original thoughts. You work harder than any sane being and when you fail you work even harder and try again. Then when you’ve made more money than you’ll ever need, you keep working, often on something new.

Here’s the challenge. Form a consortium of great entrepreneurs with a single task: eradicate homelessness. Our governments haven’t done it. Our tax money hasn’t. Non-profits and charity haven’t. You figure it out. And then you implement it. Not with your wealth but with your originality, creativity, know-how and determination.
And to you, the reader with the connections to bring this idea to the men and women I have in mind, do it! Faced with that kind of challenge, would they accept? Let’s find out.
Robert Ragaini lives in Santa Monica and New York