How We’ve Gone Backwards

Jules Hetzel, publisher, brought the world the works of the father of science fiction, French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905).

Colin McGregor  File: Homelesness.

Hetzel encouraged Verne to blend fast-paced adventure tales with futuristic scientific gadgetry. Together they launched beloved best­sellers like Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But even Jules Verne couldn’t get Hetzel to publish everything he wrote.

In 1989, Verne’s great-grandson discovered an unknown manuscript locked away in a safe. Paris in the 20th Century is the story of a man who struggles with how materialistic his city has become. Verne’s version of Paris in 1960, swelled to several million souls, includes thousands of people wandering the streets, homeless.

Completed in 1863, the novel describes a city of skyscrapers made of glass and steel. There are automobiles powered by gasoline, as well as high-speed trains, computers, TVs, faxes and calculators.

The manuscript deeply angered Hetzel. Why? Did its future projections seem too silly and unbelievable? Was Hetzel scared that Verne would be ridiculed for such a farfetched image of what life could be like one day?

In fact, Hetzel was fine with all that. Some of Verne’s other writings describe submarines, helicopters and space travel. But Hetzel couldn’t believe that his beloved Paris would ever become so pitiless as to let any of its own citizens drift aimlessly without shelter. He feared a public backlash if he published the book.

Imagine France in 1863: a society with no state welfare, no public health care, and a life expectancy half our own; where women could neither vote nor own property; where children worked the mines; ruled by an autocratic dictator, Napoleon III.

As Caroline Leblanc points out in her article Homelessness and our Senior Citizens, some of the men and women who built our society are out there, summer and winter, disoriented, impoverished, hungry and unloved. These are the people who brought children into the world, created homes and communities, fed mouths for decades. We owe them all that we are. They are our fathers and mothers, our grandparents, our blood. And yet we turn our backs on them.

If funds are available to help, not everyone knows where to go. It can be daunting, even humiliating, to hold out your hand when you’ve been a breadwinner. Moreover, having to speak the language of the bureaucrat can intimidate and discourage.

Caroline has devoted her life to improving the lives of street people of all ages. She has a powerful way of expressing herself, reflecting her deep conviction that something is very, very wrong.

Verne was right, and she is right.

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