People don’t usually want to live in Tent Cities

One of life’s mysteries, along with reality television, SUVs and the re-election of George W. Bush, is the number of people who can’t visualize themselves living in a tent at Fourth and Record streets.

That’s the location of Reno’s latest “tent city,” home to 120 or so homeless people. I dropped off a small bundle of supplies there recently, and the place was downright depressing: tidy, quiet and full of people who, for the most part, differ from me by just a fraction.

I mentioned that to a right-leaning neighbor, and I could tell from his expression I’d fired a blank.

“How do you mean?”

“Ever think how close you are to being in a place like that?”

“No,” he said slowly. “I’d get a job.”

We’ve had this conversation before. His belief, sincere as far as I know, is that anyone who hasn’t achieved what he has—and his achievements are impressive—has failed through laziness. He sees no difference between his climb from the stifling confines of Laguna Beach, Calif., and the slog from any urban ghetto. Having overcome the handicaps of an ocean view home, a Chevy Malibu on his 16th birthday, and parents who valued education enough to pay for it, he assumes anyone with ambition could slip off to UCLA and bring home a degree. Once you have that, success is only a matter of networking, a nice golf stroke and voting Republican, so the Democrats don’t squander money on social programs that coddle people too lazy to help themselves.

No doubt there are such people in Tent City. I’ve personally encountered street people who probably ought to be confined for their own protection, if not everyone’s.

Mostly, though, in Reno and elsewhere, I’ve found people who missed a few breaks the rest of us got.

The problem may be as simple as the loss of a job or the death of an industry, leaving them asset-free for a time. It’s hard to see how you can demonize somebody like that, but I’ve heard it many times.

It’s easier to criticize those who spend their money, energy and lives on drugs, including the legal ones we advertise and celebrate. I used to slam those people myself, with terms like wino and crackhead.

With experience comes compassion, though. I’ve seen too many drunks and druggies, some in my own family, to believe anyone goes down that road by choice. They may be weak, and you may not want to trust them with a key to your house, but you can usually trace their troubles back to a source, often parents who had troubles and sources of their own.

Of course this doesn’t mean we should forgive, forget and feed the needy forever. The point I can’t get across to the Laguna Beachboy, though, is that your attitude about achievement is likely to differ if you come from a family of professionals than if the only success you’ve ever seen was a drug dealer. If your father beat your mother, or the two of them beat you, your own approach to discipline is likely to be out of sync with modern theory.

In a perfect world—one, say, where programs like Head Start and services like mental health weren’t the first things raped by politicians with nothing to offer beyond a promise of lower taxes—we’d all be exposed early to the concept of success, if not its secrets. Since we aren’t, and since we’re so resistant to spending money on things like this up front, when they might be solved for pennies, we’re doomed to keep on flinging dollars after it’s almost too late.