He wasn't a City Council member, or a well-known county administrator, yet close to 60 people from different walks of life gathered in tiny St. Matthias Episcopal Church on Monday to honor the memory of 50-year-old homeless man Kenneth Griesbach.

It was discovered that Griesbach, who had been residing in the church's cold- weather shelter, was dead when residents awoke on Friday morning and he couldn't be roused. Those who knew him said the man had been in poor health for years.

"He was a big guy and had bad knees. He was using a walker," retired Pastor Bill Miller said. "Our health system didn't come through for him."

Longtime friend David Hickey, 54, said Griesbach had applied for Social Security benefits after the book bindery he worked in closed down two years ago.

"They told him his condition wasn't serious enough to receive Social Security. I feel personally that the system failed him," Hickey said.

According to friends, Griesbach dealt with congenital heart failure, sleep apnea and diabetes - conditions no doubt exacerbated by his big appetite and smoking.

"He never complained about his health issues. He always had a smile on his face," friend Robin Friedrich, 56, said.

Following the service, friends and church members gathered in the adjacent courtyard to exchange stories about Griesbach over punch and cookies and Sprague offered his reflections on the man who inspired such a sizable turnout.

"The only time I saw him grumpy was when we didn't have enough doughnuts to go around. He was a big emblem that the homeless have community relationships as worthy as any relationship on the planet," the Rev. James Sprague said.
As the reverend bid farewell to Friedrich, she fought back tears.

"I miss him so much," Friedrich said.

COMMENT: We do have homeless people in England. They fall into three main categories: runaways (young and old), addicts and the mentally ill. I would be lying if I said that some of them don't fall through the cracks in our system, especially the young and especially if bad people get to them first. But, on the whole, to be permanently homeless in England requires a person making some deliberate and disastrous lifestyle choices, such as deciding to spend all your social security money on cheap cider. Furthermore, there are many agencies out there, both state run and charitable, that are dedicated to helping the destitute and enough year round hostels to shelter any homeless person who doesn't choose to live on the streets.

Therefore, the idea of somebody being homeless because they have lost their job and being allowed to remain homeless with such a list of disabilities and illnesses is both alien and abhorrent to me. The nanny state can be infuriating at times; it creates too much red tape and can discourage initiative. But I's rather be nannied by my government than left to die.

Americans seem to think that the state is something separate from them. But, of course, the state is them. Okay, governments have a tendency to gather too much power to themselves and abuse that power. But in an advanced democracy it's down to the laziness of the voters if they get away with it. The irony is that Americans choose to rely on private enterprise for their security and welfare. Nowadays, such institutions are often international and less American than the State so many regard as somehow alien. Go figure!

For understanding the true meaning of community even though his community couldn't give a toss about him, Kenneth Griesbach is our:



  1. Social Security isn’t private but it is difficult to manage and a lot of people are tossed out. My sister is on disability and one day, out of the blue, she got a letter saying that she would get no more benefits. She was one of the lucky ones, however, and found advice which restored them. She is worried, however, that she and her jobless daughter will be on the streets or fully dependent on my widowed mother for support.

    In Seattle, there are tent cities, mostly filled with working poor, people who simply do not make enough money to afford housing here. My family knows from experience that it takes a bundle to put together first and last month’s rent, plus a lot of landlords require credit checks before they will rent. Often there are a lot more people wanting to rent than there are places, so it’s a landlord’s market–they can demand the perfect tenant.

    There is Section 8 subsidized housing, but it’s limited and again requires a lot of paperwork, luck, and some kind of income to enter. And I believe there’s a waiting list.

    And a number of people in the tent cities prefer the measure of control the ad hoc communities give them, the fact that they can live with their families or partners (which they can’t do in a number of shelters), and the comparative safety the tent city provides. I’ve spoken to several homeless people who do not want to go to the major shelters because they are afraid of theft–that their belongings will be stolen during the night.

    It’s a terrible system and could be much better managed under a central agency, it seems to me. Right now our church has a number of homeless people living there at night–they are in a city-wide program. It’s difficult to get them out of the system, again, because jobs and aid which together will pay enough even for subsidized housing take so much time to get and accumulate.


  2. You can see people living in their cars, too. I agree MP, I don’t understand this. In the deeply puritanical American culture, I think that the belief is that the poor and unfortunate “brought it on themselves” and deserve it. It’s the same thing that justifies having people without health care or education. Frankly if you drive through the downtown of any big US city, you would think you were in a third world, under-developed country. It’s absolutely disgusting.

  3. RE: “Americans seem to think that the state is something separate from them. But, of course, the state is them.”

    This quotation belongs in the sidebar of every American blogger.

  4. Over the holidays I visited the National Cathedral in D.C. As we were driving away from the immense building at closing time (Everyone must leave NOW!), we passed a homeless man pushing his few belongings along in a shopping cart. It was below 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. Winds were clocked at 50 mph that day. I couldn’t help but wonder in there wasn’t some way that these poor homeless souls could be sheltered in the large, beautiful building I had just left. A building built to proclaim the teachings of the one that taught “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

  5. More and more I’m starting to think that racisim is at the root of it all. If the poor are helped, then a lot of them will be black and a huge number of the right wing folks out there simply can’t stand the idea of THAT.

    I’m sorry to sound so cynical but, really, that’s the only thing I can come up with that explains why we’re the only industrialized nation in the WORLD that doesn’t have a national health care system for its people.

  6. I may have already told this story so feel free to ignore. A friend of my niece went to one of the “tea party” healthcare meetings in NYC last year and heard the story of one man’s mother who has cancer and no health insurance and no money to pay for her care. A woman got up and shouted at the man, “I don’t want to pay for your mother’s cancer!” That’s the U.S.A.

    My niece’s friend left in despair.

  7. I don’t know that Britain is so much kinder to unemployed able bodied single males without dependent children. They’re bottom of the housing list, the housing list, get no disability benefits, no special tax credits, laughable housing benefit and very restricted other allowances. I personally know of 2 who would have fallen through the cracks had it not been for family taking them in without expecting rent or housekeeping.

  8. I see a correlation between the “I got mine, too bad for you” culture that we live with here in the US and the “I was saved, you are going to hell” of many of the fundamentalists. Whether you believe that Jesus is the Savior of the World or that he is “my personal Savior” has a lot to do with your outlook on life and towards other.

  9. It might be instructive to read this post from a correspondent of Andrew Sullivan’s, on a visit to the other side:
    Over Christmas, my brother and I paid a visit to the other side of our family. They live as far as they can from an urban center, and are distrustful of “citified” people, though they make an exception for my side of the family, even if we are looked upon as somewhat freakish. They are Red Staters trapped in a Blue State (Washington), and resent it. They are nominally Christian.

    None (save one 2nd cousin, who has run away to attend the university I tutor at in the city) have graduated from high school, having left early to take up some form of manual labor. One of my cousins, a meth addict, disappeared years ago in Idaho. Another, a year younger than I (47) is a grandmother dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Another cousin has three daughters, all of whom are on welfare, have multiple kids from different men, spend their days playing video games when not getting new tattoos and tramp stamps at the nearest mall. All are obese and chain-smoke. All routinely refer to President Obama as “the n*****.” All watch Fox News in between bouts of video games.

    Some of them have seen jail. Two of my cousins had been, up until a few years ago, given to reading romance novels and lurid true-crime books. They now have taken to buying the books of Hannity, Coulter, et al.

  10. Of course, English people are not inherently nicer than Americans. We support the NHS because we are selfish. We will put up with our money going to somebody else’s cancer care because we want to be looked after if it happens to us. It’s not the selfishness of anti-welfare Americans that I find worrying, it’s their stupidity.

  11. It sickens me to think that the same people who espouse “family values” and “God and country” also seem to believe in “lift-yourself-by-your-own-bootstrap” American machismo.

  12. (further to IT’s point)
    “This Guy Is A Loser”, is the heading of a chapter in The Capitalism Delusion by Sydney writer Bob Ellis.

    After describing the carnage of economic fundamentalism he asks, “why so many societies-the United States in particular-have accepted without caveat this greedy, punishing ethic, the code of the roving hyena, they live by.”

    He says it is to do with the skill of their propaganda, peddled by the media, that some people are “winners” and others are “losers” and that the losers only have themselves to blame.

    “The appellation works well for capitalism because it absolves the system from the need to help people out.”

    “Winners got there, the myth continues by hard work…Even George Bush the layabout,coke-sniffing,college-flunking, boozy, womanising grandson of Old Money, got there by hard work. And Ted Turner, who inherited millions. And Rupert Murdoch who inherited a newspaper. It was hard work not family wealth, that made them winners.”

    “And it was laziness not family poverty, which made the other two hundred and five million Americans losers. That’s the explanation and we’re sticking to it.”

  13. all that I can do is agree and shake my head. I do think that Ellie is on to something with the role of race. the uninformed don’t want money going to those who are different. all that I can do is shake my head.

    perhaps we need a partition like India and Pakistan had. let the red staters have a few states in the deep south and let the rest of us create a modern democracy.

  14. The winner-loser dichotomy seems the best explanation I’ve heard – but it only works because people are already desperately looking for reasons to be selfish.

  15. I can only repeat the earlier suggestion to read “Deer Hunting With Jesus” to understand to some extent how these wretches (and yes they are wretches; with all their racism and often anti-social beliefs, they are as much victims of our amoral capitalist system as anyone) came to be who and what they are. These people are among those who will not live as long as their parents, and for them, life will be nasty, brutish, and short.

  16. It will be a small modern democracy, Dennis: only 40% of the people in the United States believe in evolution. A great many of the really conservative and poor (and poorly educated) folks live in a Nike swoosh-shaped crescent that runs from eastern Oklahoma through the upper South and Appalachians, and goes up through West Virginia into western Pennsylvania. This is the area of the most intractable US poverty (though certainly only part of the poverty problem) and it has been played to and then screwed by every conservative politician and televangelist in the country. The author of “Deer Hunting With Jesus” wrote the book in a rage over what has happened to the area where he grew up, and the people who did it.

  17. This is the area of the most intractable US poverty (though certainly only part of the poverty problem). . .

    This is what I was trying to point to in one of my blog postings; as long as someone doesn’t feel personally secure, they don’t care whether anyone outside their immediate milieu is scraping a marginal living. If they don’t feel secure, those within their milieu whom they perceive as secure, or at least whose material well-being is a priority for others, those people will be perceived as the cause of the material insecurity.

    We can talk naively about better human nature, but it doesn’t exist outside the realm of that material security. As long as there are working poor scraping by while others have more than enough, there will be this cold, cruel attitude, because, in fact, the world will actually be a cold, cruel place.

  18. What I still don’t understand, Mark, is the failure of comfortably well off Americans to be truly selfish. I have come across many stories of well off Americans who have been let down by the private sector.

    Insurance companies have declared themselves bankrupt and their clients have been unable to get new cover for pre-existing illnesses. People born with medical conditions don’t get full medical cover after childhood. People in certain professions can’t get insurance.

    In reality, as I stated earlier, universal and comprehensive welfare provision is the selfish choice of the intelligent. It is the only way to make sure that “you’re alright, Jack,” and to take care of number one. The English are no more altruistic than Americans (in fact, our record in charitable giving shows us to be less altruistic) – we are just more sensible when it comes to self-preservation.

  19. Rather than selfish, then, let us say, farsighted.

    I would still argue that there’s a difference between selfishness and what you describe in English socialized medicine – which is enlightened self-interest.

    Care for others does not preclude care for oneself.

    Those who look from paycheck to paycheck can’t be farsighted. They are too busy watching pennies. They cannot believe in a system which protects and provides because they’ve never had that experience from the community that surrounds them. In turn, the individuals in the community around them don’t help because they believe no one will help them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  20. “enlightened self-interest” – yes, I’ll accept that. Thank you.

    But remember that our welfare system came from the demands of those who looked from paycheque to paycheque and had to count the pennies. Of course, this idea raises the spectre of organised labour, another bogeyman for Americans but really just another example of enlightened self-interest.

  21. I think, though, the secret is nothing to do with “system,” but with actual community.

    This is hard for me to articulate: my second-hand, outsider experience of the UK is that, even before Labour Government, there was a sense of communal committment to the individual, and vice versa. The US has “bars” and the UK has “public houses” – that’s the closest I can get to capturing what I’m trying to say in a metaphor. Even the churches in the US are traditionally sort of quietly there to maybe help if you catch someone there when the help is needed if the money is available – certainly not a place that you look to first, except possibly outside of areas of denser population.

    Perhaps it’s the difference of a mindset in a population living on an island that has been thoroughly populated for centuries, and a population living in a continental land-mass which still has some growing room in it. Bigger isn’t always better, at least for community.

  22. But, on the whole, to be permanently homeless in England requires a person making some deliberate and disastrous lifestyle choices

    There are two homeless guys who have been hanging around in my local high street for several years. They’re never there past about midnight, but I don’t know whether that’s because they go to a shelter or if they just have somewhere slightly safer they sleep. I don’t like giving them small amount of money, though I have done, because they’ve been there for so long it obviously isn’t going to help them in the long run. I would like to help them but don’t know where to start. I assume the local homeless charities, who include the Salvos, do know about them and have already tried to do something for them. Any thoughts, anyone?

  23. Very good points…..One thing that I feel makes universal health care a mandate, basically expanding Medicare-type coverage to everyone, is that now, hospital emergency rooms are required to treat all who show up, regardless of the ability to pay. As a result, many hospitals run huge deficits in their ER finances. In some cases, smaller rural or regional hospitals have had to close their ERs because they could not absorb the losses. When that happens, NO ONE has an emergency room to go to. With universal health insurance/health care, all patients would have some coverage for medical expenses, so hospitals would get at least minimal payments for their treatment of indigent patients. This thread has in many ways been very depressing, because it’s all true. We are not dealing with the “better angels of our nature.”

  24. At the extreme ends of an argument it all seems so cut and dry…

    However, how many of us struggle with the parable of the prodigal son? Ever feel some sympathy for the “good son”? How about the parable of the workers – where the ones who labor all day are paid the same as those who arrive at the end of the day – ever struggle with that one? I have.

    The powers that be play on those feelings. Race comes to play to the extent that race baiters have taught ignorant white Americans that minorities have all kinds of special privileges now courtesy of affirmative action etc.

    I for one thing that racism is a tool used to good purpose by the ruling classes to keep the proles fighting over the scraps.

    Further, the middle class is used as a buffer zone – give them just enough credit to buy just enough shit so that they don’t think they’re poor.

    Every time an even remotely socialistic program is suggested, tell the “middle class” that they are going to lose their shit thereby dropping them down the hole into that mythical poverty class we all fear.

    The truth being that in America the difference between the two is negligible when compared with the outrageous wealth of the ruling class.

    When asked in surveys about their class – a large number of low income folks still identify as middle class – and a healthy number of rich folk also believe they are middle class.

    In the end we are all slaves to the corporate masters who really own and run this government.

  25. there are some people who simply refuse to go to shelters. local news had an interview with a guy recently who was content in his little tent down by the river and got food from the soup kitchens. But the vast majority of homeless in America are mentally ill. The single most foolish thing we did was to close the mental hospitals in the 60’s. the were a mess, but they sent all those people out with prescriptions they couldn’t afford and were too ill to keep up with. MP is correct, the refusal to deem medical care a human right is America’s biggest problem.

  26. Oh yes, the major source of the homeless in Dallas years ago was the closing of many of the state mental hospitals in Texas, particularly one in Terrell, just outside Dallas. They gave them all a bottle of Thorazine and a one-way bus ticket to Dallas, and that was that. Now, many more of the homeless are the former “middle class” and lower class who lost jobs and ran out of money, but for years, over 60% of the homeless here had intractable mental illness and should have been in some sort of treatment. The truly sad thing around Texas is how they boast about being the greatest state, when in fact they trail almost the entire country in caring for those less fortunate. The “joke” around here is that if it weren’t for Mississippi, Texas would be last in everything.

  27. Hello everyone — I am Kenneth’s niece and although from the outside it would appear that he was tossed aside by his community and family, I would like to tell you that we loved him very much. Although we did not understand his decisions, it was his choice to live on the streets. On many occasions he was offered alternatives, but he did not choose to take them. We did the best we could in providing for him but it was hard because he was very secretive about his life. He would only allow my grandmother to meet him somewhere, she never knew where he was actually living. He did work up until 2 years prior to his death, when the business he worked for closed down. At his funeral I heard many many stories of good people giving him food, shoes, blankets, a place to stay, a place to keep his stuff. It was amazing. He was our gentle giant — never a bad word to say about anyone. It is only in his passing that we have learned about this life of his and we feel blessed that we were able to meet his friends and the many people that cared for him.
    Anyway, sorry to hijack your debate about America — I just wanted to let you know that he was loved and that not every homeless person has been abandoned and that, yes, as hard as it is to believe, some do choose that life.