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For a Day, Times are Better on the Street

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, a great many of the nation's estimated 760,000 homeless people will eat like kings. Or if not kings, at least like most other Americans. It's the one day when people's attention is most often drawn to the plight of the homeless. Thousands donate money so that people on the streets can enjoy a hearty turkey dinner at shelters and soup kitchens. Lots of folks even give up their own feast with relatives and friends to volunteer, serving the homeless those sumptuous meals.

But it is quite literally a feast-or-famine situation. The rest of the year, most Americans go to some effort to avoid even eye contact with homeless people, some of whom are mentally unstable or intoxicated or both.

Several years ago, photographer Howard Shatz set up a tent studio in the parks of San Francisco. He took rather elegant sit-down portraits of inelegant homeless people that eventually went into a book.

Shatz concluded that the homeless are resented as a nuisance, an eyesore. People say to them, "Get a job," he told us. But can you imagine sitting there 10, 12, 15 hours a day, begging? That's become their job. They can't get a regular one.

In the current economic downturn, thousands and thousands of Americans have lost their regular jobs. Some can fall back on a spouse's income to survive or get meager, minimum-wage jobs. But others, including whole families, end up on the street. The government says 20 percent of the nation's homeless are children.

These people are not lazy. They're not drunk or on drugs. They're not bums. And on Thanksgiving Day, they'll be in everyone's thoughts and in many prayers. And they won't have to beg to get a really good meal.

[Howard Shatz's photographic book, The Homeless: Portraits of Americans in Hard Times, was published in 1994.]

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.