Amidst interminable “reporting” on the “poor” victims of Ponzi maven Bernie Madoff – would anyone care if people had blown $65 billion trying to get richer in Las Vegas? – an alarming July 5 NY Times headline informs: “Safety Net Is Fraying for the Very Poor.”
In the story, by Erik Eckholm, we learn Obama’s stimulus package has softened the impact of recession on many of the working poor; but the neediest have become more destitute. Estimates of those lacking homes, jobs, and all basic support range as high as 3.5 million.
As dupes of Madoff like Elie Wiesel kvetch about his and his charity’s lost millions, the LA Times reported that “officials at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles and Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center had discharged patients, put them in cabs and dumped them on skid row.” The hospital officials pleaded that only the most destitute area in Southern California has “a concentration of social services for the patients, including homeless shelters and drug and alcohol programs.” (April 7, 2009)
ABC News showed video of Carol Ann Reyes, 63, being “loaded into a cab by Kaiser Permanente hospital staff and dumped on Skid Row, wearing nothing more than a hospital gown and socks.” Regina Chambers, who works at the Union Rescue Mission, said Reyes “was very disoriented. She didn’t know where she was or what she was doing.”
Marveil Williams, another dumping victim, informed ABC: “They told me I needed to get out that hospital bed and go find somewhere to stay.” The reporter concluded: “His head and eyes still swollen, Williams was dumped on the doorstep of Skid Row’s Union Rescue Mission.”
Other area hospitals also far from downtown practiced similar policies. Police officials complained that “the practice worsens the already grim conditions on skid row. They also disputed the hospitals’ contention that the patients taken to skid row are always ready for release.” (March 24, 2006)
Hospital managers insisted “dumping” indigent people assures “the best interests of the patients because skid row offers their best chance of receiving the follow-up services — as well as shelter — that they need once they are discharged.” Mehera Christian, director of public affairs for Kaiser Permanente Metro Los Angeles, whose hospital is eight miles west of downtown, said: “There are just a scarce number of places in the community to assist our homeless.” (LA Times, April 7, 2009)
Since last November, homelessness has increased in California while the state continued to reduce benefits and services to the poor. In May, A., a sixty year old African American woman, complained to her health care worker that she received $154 less on her monthly disability check – leaving her $436 a month. Her rent is $300. She began “working the streets” at age 12. Her godmother eventually took her in and she finished high school, married, had children and worked at a series of unskilled jobs. Then, eight years ago, her boy friend set her on fire in a fit of pique, leaving her unable to work.
“What was I supposed to do when a woman calls me at home and says she’s his wife? He admits it and I tell him to leave and he gets mad, you know, and he drugged me and while I was passed out he poured lighter fluid on me and lit me. Now that shit will wake you up.”
A. earns “bus money” by recycling. The burn scars show vividly on her arms and cover her torso. She spends her days going to crowded soup kitchens to scrounge enough food, and visits her new “boy friend” at a state supported rehab home where he is recovering from a stroke. “You can’t have too much of a social life on $136 a month,” she chuckles.
J., white and 36, begins the day by injecting herself with 2 grams of heroin “just to get well.” She says she wants to go on methadone and stop using, but it never works out.
It began 20 years ago, she recalls, when a pimp pretending to love her got her hooked and turned her out. Once on the habit she had to work to meet the cost of her daily intake, now $200. She earns this by giving blow jobs and shoplifting. “You steal a box of detergent, find a receipt on the sidewalk or in the trash to match the purchase price and the store refunds the money,” she explains. “After several hours of this and a couple of blow jobs she makes enough to score,” says a person who treats her at a free clinic.
Recently, J. met a bus driver who promised to pay her $12 a day in methadone fees. “He really likes me. He says he wants to go into business with me. You know, I could do graphic art.” She repeats this pipe dream of a man who will “save me, take care of me, get me off dope.”
The abscesses from 20 years of daily injecting have left her arms and legs a mass of cavernous scar tissue. She clings to the dream that someone will come along and save her. But she lacks the will to go to the methadone clinic by herself and rescue herself.
Nan, a former high school teacher, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. A female student assaulted her with a knife, but didn’t actually cut her. The incident and subsequent mental and emotional problems caused her to quit teaching. She got disability payments and then got a job in a bakery. But she had problems relating to her boss and had to leave that position as well. Back on disability, she could not afford to pay the rent on her apartment. Last November, she became homeless and now lives in a secluded spot in the Oakland hills with her dog. She still has access to a social worker and some psychological help, but the budgets for these programs are being cut. She has no hope of getting a roof over her head, especially with her only friend, the dog. From teacher to homeless woman without a viable agenda!
The people who lost millions or hundreds of thousands speculating with Madoff have generated media attention, which they would not have done if they had lost their money in a Vegas casino. The truly poor remain marginal in all arenas of consciousness. We see them on downtown streets, begging, talking to themselves, sleeping, or just staring into space.
In 1997, my wife and I stopped our car on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington DC. We were on our way out of town. A man in his thirties lay on the curb, moaning. “I fell. I couldn’t walk any more,” he told my wife, a nurse. We helped him sit up. He had just been discharged from DC General Hospital despite the fact that he suffered from acute pancreatitis. “I was a practicing lawyer and let the bottle get the better of me,” he explained in the next few minutes. “So now I’m jobless, homeless, without my family and hospitals don’t keep people for more than a day.” We gave him $20 and hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to the homeless shelter.
Most of us do not want to admit the obvious: there but for the grace of God — or State legislatures – go I. Responding to recession, people who feel absolutely assured by God’s Grace, Members of State legislatures in almost half of the states have dramatically cut programs for the disabled and elderly and reduced public schools budgets as well. The states remain in the red to the tune of tens of billions.
In the 1960s, California built public colleges and universities, expanded state parks and made libraries more accessible. But the wealthy don’t use public education, health or transportation and own parks on their estates.
Tax cuts – the mantra of the right wing – means less money for public services. It also means more homeless, jobless, and hopeless people.
Funny, how few Members of Congress even hesitate before voting $800 billion for a war system – excuse me, defense, that doesn’t defend us – and hopeless far away wars. The wretched of our country, however, don’t merit even much newspaper sympathy – compared to those swindled by the iniquitous Madoff.
SAUL LANDAU won Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins award for human rights. Counterpunch published his A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. He is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose films on DVD are available. (firstname.lastname@example.org)