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Dear Friends,

Many people have weighed in on Hurricanes Katrina and now Rita. I'm not sure if I can add anything but I do like the idea of taking stock on where we stand at watershed, in this case tragic, moments. And further discussion of the stubborn and overlooked issues of poverty and race in America is a positive thing.

For people like you that are interested in ending homelessness, an extreme of poverty in the U.S., Katrina ripped the lid off our system, exposing again the deep rooted, often hidden, effects of systemic poverty. The combination of that poverty with a natural disaster, and an overwhelmed relief system, proved to be a devastating "homelessness cocktail."

But it's a recipe for homelessness that we are familiar with. Epidemic homelessness is not just about mental illness, for there are many more people with mental illness that are housed; it is not about drugs alone; and it is certainly not about people choosing to be homeless (despite persistent myths). Like the example of people rendered homeless by Katrina, it is largely a combination of poverty with some other 'storm': the loss of a job, a health condition, domestic violence, mental health breakdown, a divorce, the predominant common denominator being poverty.

Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School spoke at UMass Boston last week and noted the metaphor of The Miner's Canary (the title of her book written with Gerald Torres) in regards to Katrina. The vulnerable canary with its sensitive respiratory system was sent down into the mines to check the air. Troubled breathing for the canary was an indicator that the air was poisoned for all in the mine (not just the canary). Following the metaphor, people killed or left homeless by Katrina are not a wake up for just those people, but for all of us. The air is poisoned in America.

Last Saturday I had the pleasure to talk with Danny Glover who was shooting a PSA for Give Us Your Poor in Boston. Between takes, he noted, "These people weren't abandoned with Katrina, they were abandoned long ago. There's a historic abandonment that we never talk about....We talk about all that New Orleans was, but nobody talks about where peoples' lives are marginalized, and where people live under the belly of the beast. And with Katrina...every bit of it comes to the surface like a bruise on your arm."

For devastating reasons, the spotlight has shone again on our American family and those left outside. History tells us that the spotlight will move elsewhere soon. So here's my hope: that more of us remember what we have seen when we are back to the daily grind and our mind focuses on other important things, that we remember the images, and the feeling that America can do better. If more folks keep the image of poverty and disconnection in their consciousness and some of those act to do something it brings us closer to the solution.

As in times of disaster, there is a role for the federal government in reducing epidemic homelessness. Part of that role is through offering incentives to the private market, but it must also just act directly at times. There is, too, a role for the faith community, for non-profits, and for each of us, homeless and housed. We can do better. We can do more. Republican, Democrat, other...who cares.

Whether you join the Give Us Your Poor effort, your own effort, or another effort looking at poverty, or racial, spiritual, or political divide, let us do something. As Blues musician, and contributor to the Give Us Your Poor music CD, Mighty Sam McClain said, "We are all one family... in one house...no one room!...and it's called earth!"

You can support the Katrina/Rita relief effort through the American Red Cross by clicking here.

Thank you,

John McGah, Director, Give US Your Poor