A homeless person in NYC

They ride subways all night, or they sleep on the sidewalks. Sometimes they find a sheltered spot in one of the city parks. During the day they try to keep out of sight.

But at night they drift into train and bus stations, and even the airports. Sometimes you'll see them answering the voices they're hearing in their heads. They know that passersby don't like that, so they try to stay quiet. They have learned that it's safer to stay quiet.

What America thinks about homelessness is often what America thinks about failure -- it's unsightly, it's smelly, it's unpatriotic, it's worthless. You should avert your gaze from it quickly in case it infects you.
The homeless themselves instinctively know that most people think this. They know they're an affront to the story the country tells of itself.

They know their condition puts them at terrible personal risk, because they're a visible reminder of how badly things can go wrong, and they're resented for it, and they can also make handy scapegoats when things do go wrong.

If financial success is how America gauges a persons personal worth -- and it is -- then America's homeless population exists at the wrong end of the spectrum. They are, they know better than anyone, the total disavowal of the American Dream, the people with the least worth, the losers.

When I first came to this country I was puzzled by the unusually high levels of contempt I often saw American men (it has always been men) express for homeless people here. There was a finality in their tone that I found very unsettling. A line was being drawn.

These people were write offs, basket cases, a drain on the system I was told. They'd be better off dead.
It's only one short subway stop from that dehumanizing rhetoric to its lethal conclusion. When I realized that it gave me the chills.

More than once I have witnessed American men on their way to or from work loudly berate homeless people on the street for their all-too-apparent laziness, as though their condition could not possibly have another contributing factor.

For the angry passer by there was no need to belabor the issue at all. These homeless people have simply decided not to count, I was told.

And if you don't count in America there's no need to wonder about you any further. Less successful implies you're less deserving, and if you're less deserving that implies you're less valuable.

That's why if you live in New York City, or any big American city, you have almost certainly seen this scene play out -- a homeless man is sitting in a subway car, or in a park, or under a ledge somewhere, taking shelter. He's talking to himself or more likely sleeping. Along comes a working man in a raincoat who takes offense at his presence.

“Hey buddy, why don't you get yourself a job? Ha? Hey buddy?”

Because you're commuting or because it takes you a minute to pass them both on the street you're forced to witness the confrontation.

What will happen next? Well increasingly, statistics say, homeless people here are being attacked. Homeless means failure and failure means worthless.

Young people in particular have gotten the message. They been paying attention to this social cue – that's why young people are the most dangerous attackers of the homeless now, statistics show.

It's estimated that at least one-third of the nation’s homeless population have a serious mental illness, usually schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (approximately 250,000 people with serious mental illnesses are homeless in the U.S.).

We know for certain that there are many more people with untreated and severe psychiatric illnesses living on America’s streets than receiving care in the nation’s hospitals. Prisons have become the main psychiatric wards.

They say a nation’s greatness resides in the way it treats the least of its citizens. By that yardstick America's glory days are still firmly ahead of it.

To the outside world America can look like the biggest squabble over a bill the world has ever seen. With all the jostling and the name calling and the outrage a central fact is easily lost -- what prompted the squabble in the first place.

Whether it's health care, or taxes, or gun control, or mental illness or our gridlocked politics, in America everything always comes down to the bill.

Issues like homelessness and mental health bring up, consciously and subconsciously, issues of worth, issues of success and failure here. And America, I have discovered, has a near pathological aversion to any idea of failure.

That's why I don't hold out much hope for the level of political debate that will follow in the wake of the Newtown massacre on Friday.

It's not the kind of story the nation is interested in. It gives the lie to the story the country tells of itself, and it's putting us all at terrible risk.