FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Are Homeless People Beautiful?

This very odd question occurred to me after Terry Messman, the editor of Street Spirit, suggested I write something for the paper in conjunction with the publication of my new book, Doodling on the Titanic: The Making of Art in the World on the Brink. Homeless people get the paper for free and sell it for a dollar on the sidewalks of Oakland and Berkeley. 

My day job as a lawyer, much of which involves defending people who are homeless, doesn’t give me much chance to think about beauty. I’m all about how to squeeze my clients through the loopholes of law and convince a judge that even though they sleep without a roof over their head they’re still covered by the Constitution.

Beauty doesn’t enter into it.

But here I am, sitting in court, waiting for the judge to take the bench and this question, Are Homeless People Beautiful, is roiling around in my mind.

I don’t argue in court about whether homeless people are beautiful. It’s not something on which a judge will render a verdict. Nevertheless, aesthetic judgments about people who are homeless are always there in the mix, disappearing into a crowd of judgments about their cleanliness, their criminality, and the risk they may or may not represent to society’s health, well-being and economic prosperity.

Are Homeless People Beautiful? The answer generally is no. They are not.

This should not be surprising. People who are homeless are the targets of prejudice. And the target de jour of prejudice is invariably stigmatized as bad and ugly, morally and aesthetically displeasing.

They are invariably dirty.

“Dirty Jew,” shouts the anti-semite.

“Dirty N—–,” shouts the racist.

And people who are homeless? They are dirty, smelly, unkempt, and lazy.

Dirt is a sign of moral degeneracy. It is unhealthy and it’s ugly. Like excrement. If it’s in the street, it needs to be cleaned up. Then the street will be beautiful again. Metaphors of cleansing abound where prejudice attempts to rid itself of those who offend it.oshatitanic

Homeless people are constantly cited for what we call “quality of life,” offenses: blocking the sidewalk, trespassing on church steps, lodging (whatever that means), remaining in the park after curfew, etc. etc. I’m in court right now to defend my clients against just such charges. But I can’t help feeling their underlying offense is that they violate society’s sense of order, order not just as in “law and order,” but an order that people perceive as attractive, comfortable, and ultimately beautiful.

The good, the true, and the beautiful are the triumvirate at whose feet we worship.

The bad, the false, the ugly, are their opposite.

How did homeless people end up on the wrong side of that great divide?

Women are tyrannized by concepts of beauty. They mutilate themselves with liposuction and Botox, and strenuous dieting to conform to an impossible ideal.

Homeless people are also tyrannized by a concept of beauty, to which they will never be able to conform as long as they remain homeless.

I like to think of beauty as something everyone on the planet can appreciate. We all find sunsets, and meadowlarks, and fields of blooming flowers beautiful, whether we are rich or poor, housed our homeless.

Beauty is liberating. A joy. A relief from toils and troubles.

So how did it become a cudgel with which to beat people up?

The judge is late. Court was supposed to begin ten minutes ago. I start to scribble my thoughts on a yellow pad. Then I’m stopped by a thought. I’ve been thinking of what others think about people who are homeless. What would homeless people’s answer to the question, “Are Homeless People Beautiful?”

My guess is they’d find the question ridiculous. Their answer might be something like: “Well, Joe here is a beautiful guy, but Gus over there— he’s ugly as sin.” Or, “Maureen keeps her campsite nice and clean, but Davida’s place is just a mess.”

Then I think, well maybe the answer of the homeless would not be that different from that of the housed. Almost all homeless people would prefer to have a home. If they could be miraculously transported to one of those mansions in the hills with glorious views of the Bay—all clean and tidy, tastefully furnished, freshly painted on the inside and landscaped on the outside— would they not find their new surroundings beautiful, and their old campsites, by comparison, not so much?

Poverty is ugly.

Homelessness is a blight on a society as rich as ours.

Why pretend that homelessness is beautiful?

Perhaps the only difference in point of view, between those who use the concept of beauty to beat up on people who are homeless and those of us who use it as a beacon pointing the way toward a better world awaiting is the conclusions we draw from our observations, and the direction to which our moral compass points.

Once people who are homeless are not simply “the other,” but are seen as kin to us who are housed, then we housed ones will find in the houseless, the range of beauty, truth and goodness that resides in all of us. It just takes familiarity. I really believe that.

And I am comforted by this conclusion. It preserves my hope that all human beings can share in a common perception of the beautiful.

But it implies that universality can only be achieved if beauty can be extricated from all the moral judgments, contempt and disdain that infect it when it is applied to groups that we disparage. Perhaps inevitably, where we stand in the hierarchies of society, housed or houseless, rich or poor, comfortable or uncomfortable will infect our judgments about the beautiful, and until those hierarchies are dismantled there will not be a universal concept of beauty that we can all share and which will not be a tyranny of one group over another.

And until then, I’ll spend too much time in court scribbling thoughts on my yellow pad and doodling in the margins.

Oops. Time to put the pad away. The judge is taking the bench.

Osha Neumann is an attorney, muralist, and sculptor. He is the author of Up Against the Wall MotherF**ker: a Memoir of the 60s with Notes for Next Time and Doodling on the Titanic: The Making of Art in the World on the Brink. He can be reached at oshaneumann@gmail.com

 

 

 

More articles by:

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail