Sunday, June 29, 2008

On the subject of homelessness...

It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

                                                           - George Elliot

This morning I found myself thinking about a case going to trial in mid-July. The women, Joy Kohler and Jamie “Bork” Loughner, are being tried on charges of terrorism for locking themselves to a public housing unit in New Orleans. Their actions were a last ditch effort to prevent the demolition of one of the last public housing spaces left in the city. The arrests made by New Orleans police, were defended by an officer’s claim that the lock down devices the women used to prevent the removal of their chains, looked as if they could be bombs. 

     This story left two major imprints on my brain, that eventually came full circle:

1)The rhetoric of the law being such that a person may be jailed, and tried, because an officer of the law thinks something or someone looks like something threatening.

2)The conditions facing the poor and homeless in New Orleans, as well as the rest of the nation’s large cities.

The former will make more sense for me to address after addressing the issue of homelessness. 

I suppose a good place to start when it comes to topics liek this, is with facts. 

*1 in 25 people in the city of New Orleans is homeless. That measures out to be about 4% of the population. Easily the highest homeless population in the country. (To put it into perspective, the next highest percentages of homeless are in Atlanta with 1.4% and Washington, with .95%)

*40% of the homeless staying in public shelters in New Orleans have full time jobs.

*Since 2005, attacks on homeless have increased by 65%. The vast majority of these attacks are by civilians, and of those, and overwhelming amount of the attacks are by teens. 

*16.5% of people in New Mexico go without food every day. Of those people, less than half qualify for welfare. 

*A recent study concluded the number one cause of homelessness was (big surprise) unaffordable rising housing costs. The second largest factor was unaffordable health care. Nearly a third of all homeless are without healthcare.

*Only 26% of all homeless are reported as having a  “substance abuse” problem.

*46% of homeless report having a chronic health condition. Nearly a third have high risk ailments.

*That percentage doesn’t account for the 22% of homeless described as having a serious mental illness.

*40% of homeless men are veterans

It is difficult to decide where to begin addressing these facts. I am tempted to begin with the issue of veterans, but it seems to make most sense to start at the top. A common response heard, when i have relayed these facts, is justification. “Of course there are high amounts of homeless in New Orleans. They just suffered a natural disaster”. “ Of course there are poor conditions for homeless in New Mexico. They are probably immigrants.” I have a response to each of these. Aside from the fact that a continued growth in the homeless population of a city after a natural disaster has occurred is completely unprecedented, the fact that federal aid funding continues to be cut is an atrocity. A recent article in USA Today said it best, “being in a natural disaster is no longer a guarantee that that the government is coming to rescue you.” This is partially why the demolition of public housing in the city is so controversial. The city argues that the decrease in the city’s population has decreased the need for public housing. But this is faulty logic because it is those people on the brink of homelessness who most benefit from it. To the second response, about New Mexico... I can offer no statistic about what percentage of homeless and hungry are immigrants. I can say with confidence that 100% of them are humans.  I think of woody guthrie’s song “deportees”:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,

The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;

They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border

To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;

You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be "deportees"

My father's own father, he waded that river,

They took all the money he made in his life;

My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,

And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,

Our work contract's out and we have to move on;

Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,

We died in your valleys and died on your plains.

We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,

Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,

A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? 

The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? 

Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? 

To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil

And be called by no name except "deportees"?

It is here that my mind splits into two directions: 1) The treatment of veterans, and 2) the treatment and mindset towards the homeless. 

To me, this song does not just pertain to deportees. You could easily substitute the word “veterans” for deportee. Our government uses them as a means to an end. If they don’t die there by the gun, they die here by our own hands. Of homeless veterans, a large portion of them are unable to obtain jobs due to injury or illness. The “benefits” provided to veterans are feeble at best. They are duped into “defending” the laws of our country (i use defended in quotes because at present the vast majority of homeless veterans are from the Vietnam War...and i do not think anyone is willing to argue that that war was a necessary act of defense.) In this way they are treated as a means to an end... they serve to advance an agenda and then are discarded to the streets. ( I could argue that this is a somewhat modern phenomenon...the percentage of homeless veterans prior to the Vietnam War was less than half what it currently is. I would argue that there is far more implication in that than people are willing to look into.... they are not treated liek heros, because everyone knows their “service” is a joke (perhaps another reason we are seeing rising rates of homeless Iraq War vets). There is a term for this that comes to mind: “standing reserve”. It is a term expressed by Heidegger in “The Question Concerning Technology”. In it, he argues that with technological increases, humans exponentially increase the conversion of universal materials, into consumable goods. The example he uses, is trees into mulch for particle board, chairs, etc. It takes little imagination to draw the impending parallel between the treatment of trees (and animals for that matter) to the treatment of men (through the example of the treatment of veterans). “Is this the best way we can grow our orchards? Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? to fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil, and be called by no name except deportees?”

It is hard to follow the heavy implications behind the treatment of veterans, with the weighty discussion of the treatment of the homeless. The 3rd fact i noted is perhaps the most troubling. Since 2005, attacks on the homeless have increased by 65%... with the vast majority of these being carried out by civilians. This has directly followed an increase in laws around the country that seem to be taking direct action against the homeless. In Nevada, laws were imposed making it against the law “to provide food or meals to the indigent for free or for a nominal fee.” Labeling an indigent person as “a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance (please see my first point about the inherent flaws in the rhetoric of the law). A similar law was enacted in Orlando. In Austin, and Atlanta, new laws increase possibility of jail time for loitering. In New Orleans, lawmakers are threatening to make it against the law to sleep in public spaces, and in Denver, it was proposed that it be made illegal to sleep under an overpass. Similar laws have been a trend all across the United States. The implication here, would seem that the law creates the stigma. By criminalizing the homeless, we are in essence telling society that it is OK to attack, that is is OK to mistreat the homeless, because they are criminals, they are scum unworthy of an existence commensurable to ours. 

This is a disturbing thought.  Things occur in progressive stages. It all begins with the dehumanization of a group... we have gotten into the habit of dehumanizing immigrants, and dehumanizing the homeless. This is evident in our laws, and evident in our actions (one example, is Warren Messer, a 15 yr old boy serving life for beating a homeless man to death “just because”). We cannot let our government shape our mindset. That is scary territory. We have got to step back and think about out actions....think about our laws. Awareness is a good first step towards change. I am not sure what the best solutions to this problem are. A changing of the laws certainly seems in order. To criminalize a human for being without the means to eat and live, is sickening. But we have to do more. We have to change the way we see the homeless before we can begin to provide solutions for helping them cope with their situation. I am not implying society is entirely responsible for the condition of all homeless peoples. But I cannot idly sit by and watch these people be beaten, or be commodified. I think, appropriately, of Marx: “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. I cannot allow the complete dehumanization of a group of people to occur...because that could allow for a farce far too tragic for me to appreciate. 

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