On the verge of losing hope"When we first documented hunger conditions," Dehavenon recalls, "the whole country was up in arms. In 1979 people couldn't believe that there was hunger anywhere in the U.S. The media ate it up." Over the years the response has become more tepid, and recently almost nonexistent, matching the political tenor of the times.
"Today, when I am with friends whose lives never touch these conditions, I only talk about my work when they ask. It's become increasingly wearing to confront the lack of information about the causes of U.S. poverty, of which hunger and homelessness are only two of the symptoms." What happened to people? Some people are making lots of money, Dehavenon says, and the gap between the very rich and very poor has become much greater recently. "I don't believe most people are insensitive; it's just that our social lives are so segregated. In the areas where they live and work, most middle and upper middle class families only see the occasional single homeless person who's sleeping on a park bench or huddled in the corner of a church entrance. Homeless families, wary of the threat of having their children taken into foster care, keep them off the streets." In New York City, Dehavenon says even the single homeless are less evident because Giuliani has forced them into poor neighborhoods, far away from the more genteel areas. So poverty is kept invisible: out of sight, out of mind.
In 1984 a foundation that later funded her research asked Dehavenon how long she thought these conditions would last. Her response was and still is, "I see nothing on the horizon that suggests when they will be over. There will have to be massive shifts in our political priorities."
As a result, Dehavenon's balance between advocacy and scholarship has tilted slightly in her last report. "I felt it was time to speak out more. Here is 20 years of seeing what's going on here. It's not only not gotten better, it's gotten worse. Actually it's more cruel, and more punitive, than it ever was before."