“A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization” -Aime Cesaire
The true measure of a country is not the height of its skyscrapers or might of its military – but the treatment of vulnerable populations. On any given night, more than half a million people experience homelessness in the United States. But in the midst of massive wealth accumulation is a dearth of compassion for the downtrodden.
Homeless People, Peopleless Homes
Embedded in the discourse of politicians and civilians alike is the idea that homelessness is caused by a “housing shortage.” Pundits sprain their brains when they explain the relationship between supply and demand in the housing market. However, this line of reasoning completely overlooks the fact that there are 6 vacant properties for every homeless person in the United States. Even if we use more conservative figures, there are still 2.3 empty houses for every person that is homeless. There are more peopleless homes than homeless people because houses do not exist to satisfy human needs. Under capitalism, houses are instruments to extract profit. If someone cannot afford their monthly rent or mortgage payment, they are thrown onto the streets. There is no such thing as a “housing shortage” – there is only a shortage of humanity.
Anyone who is vaguely familiar with America’s inner cities has borne witness to people holding cardboard signs and begging for spare change. Reactions tend to fall into two camps: ignore the victims or punish them, or both. Motorists are notorious for avoiding eye contact with ‘bums’ – and pedestrians are known to simply step over ‘hobos’ laying on the sidewalk. This warped mentality is validated and reproduced at the structural level by governments that criminalize poverty. Across the country, anti-panhandling ordinances are being passed that subject the poor to heavy fines and jail time. Consider the fact that between 2011 and 2014, the number of cities that banned panhandling increased by 25%. It is evident that people who beg for money are demonized as ‘public nuisances’ and blemishes on the body politic. Police departments are utilized as instruments that fumigate these ‘menaces’ from gentrifying areas – quelling the concerns of wealthy, white developers and residents about their ‘quality of life.’ Adding insult to injury is the fact that local governments are altering the public spaces frequented by transient populations. Specifically, municipalities are investing in defensive architecture: street furniture (i.e. park benches) that is rigged with spikes or bars to prevent prolonged stays by people who are homeless.
Image: vertical bars installed on bench to prevent people from laying down. Photo Credit
A common idea is that people who are homeless and beg for money deserve to suffer because they are (more likely to be) substance abusers. Empirical studies have found that individuals who are homeless do, in fact, consume drugs and alcohol at higher rates than the general population. However, our analysis needs to be expanded to view the entire picture. Addiction to drugs/alcohol is often a cause of homelessness. Detoxification programs often advance the idea that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.” From this perspective, addiction is a consequence of dehumanization – a turning inward and away from people. Children who suffer adverse childhood experiences and trauma are significantly more likely to become alcoholics as adults. That being stated, there is a significant chance that the people who are living on the streets were denied meaningful human connections from an early age. Now, consider their feelings when a motorist avoids eye contact or a pedestrian steps over them. These responses reaffirm the original feelings of violation, vulnerability, and solitude experienced in childhood – all of which might exacerbate their substance abuse, which worsens their financial plight.
Keep in mind that people who are homeless are typically ignored at their darkest hour. Not only are such individuals in a precarious position, but the masses of people fail to acknowledge as such. Making eye contact, smiling, and giving an uplifting word is important – as it establishes a connection and sends the message that there is still hope.
Cesaire, Aime. 1955. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press: New York