Being rousted by the cops is hardly if ever a good thing. Back in 1982 I was sleeping under some trees in a park in Kansas City when I heard approaching footsteps. Dawn had barely broken. It was midsummer and I was hazily watching the dew turn to steam while I slowly woke from a sweaty sleep. My last ride had left me near the park about 11 the night before. There was a concert taking place so I hung out in the parking lot while the band played. The band was Blondie. After the show was over and the parking lots were clear I headed into the trees in search of a decent set of vegetation to hide in and sleep. Now, somebody was walking very close by. As it turned out, it was a pair of cops. They had their nightsticks out ready to pounce on me. I put my hands in the air and said hello. The taller one asked me for my identification while the other held on to his club. The one with the club took my ID, went back to their car to call in for warrants. I tried to make small talk with the other crewcutted uniform but he was not in the mood. A few minutes later, the other uniform (also crewcutted) came back and returned my identification. The two discussed my situation a few feet away as if I wasn’t there. Then they told me to get the hell out their sight. I took their advice. I did not want to go to jail.
Raiding homeless camps and removing the tents the inhabitants of those camps use for shelter is standard practice throughout the United States. Recently, this idea was revived in a government subcommittee in Burlington, VT where I work. Besides the fact that this practice was recently ruled unconstitutional by a Federal Court in Seattle, it also violates the basic human rights of those who live in the camps. These camps have grown in size and in frequency around the nation. Indeed, the biggest difference between the years I had no real address in the 1970s and early 1980s is the sheer number of homeless people today. When I visited California, Oregon and Washington almost three years ago, I was both astounded and appalled at the vast numbers of people living in tents under bridges and in vacant lots. I had not been in that part of the United States in close to a decade and the sheer numbers had increased exponentially. So had the price of rent. Obviously, we’re talking causality and not correlation here. The number of people living in the streets is directly related to the gentrification occurring. The most honest definition of gentrification is kicking people out of their homes so the owner(s) can make a huge profit by selling it to a high bidder. In Europe it’s called housing speculation. No matter what, it puts people who have paid rent for years out in the street.
The process often (if not usually) goes something like this. A landlord owns an apartment building. The landlord might be an individual or a corporation. Either way, the rental market has always made it impossible for them to raise rents to the point where they were not affordable for the working person or family. The units may not be well-maintained or even up to code, but they are people’s homes. New capital moves into the town—nowadays it is usually connected to the world of technology—and begins to buy up these properties. The new owners don’t want the current tenants to continue to live in their properties, so they buy them out. In the early 1990s a friend of mine in San Francisco’s Haight District was offered $3500 to move out of his two-room apartment where he had lived since the 1980s. He refused at first, hoping to get more money out of the corporation that was buying the building.
Then the threats began. My friend had a bit of a substance abuse problem at the time and did not want to go to prison. The new landlord made another offer of $5000. My friend took the money. Many tenants who refuse to take the money end up being evicted without the cash or a place to live since there are no empty places they can afford anymore. Many of them end up living in tents, still working and trying to provide.
There are those who believe that one only becomes homeless by choice. Many more folks seem to believe that homelessness happens to those who have made a series of questionable choices: a partner who abuses them, a job they quit for whatever reason, too much debt because of their spending habits. While these circumstances do play into the causes some people end up on the street, the bottom line is that everyone who wants a place to shelter should have one. One thing I noticed living on the streets is that the longer one is without a home, the fewer their choices become. Lives become more desperate and even hopeless.
I have lived in the Burlington, VT area for twenty of the last twenty-seven years. Housing costs are quite high in relation to the wage of many of its residents. Like many other cities and towns in the United States, instead of honestly addressing the underlying issue of inequality, the Burlington government refuses to acknowledge the link between exorbitant rents in the area and homelessness. What this means in stark terms is that Burlington refuses to acknowledge the basic human rights all people have to safe and affordable shelter. Instead of addressing the needs of its homeless residents, the city recently “loaned” a multimillionaire investor millions of dollars (via a TIF tax scheme) to rebuild a mall in downtown Burlington and will spend millions of dollars on “improving” a park that a sizable number of city residents do not want to change (especially in the proposed manner). There will be no public restrooms in the park and, ever since the mall was destroyed, there have been no public restrooms in what remains of the mall. Therefore, people without houses are left with the streets, the library and City Hall to go to the bathroom.
It would cost considerably less than the more than 15 million already allocated to the mall and park construction to provide a secular place open 24/7 where houseless folks could get a shower, get a couple meals, and obtain some assistance with clothing and looking for work. Those in need of it could get assistance with any substance abuse problems they might have. Most importantly perhaps, the houseless could just get a place off the street for a few hours. People with places to live have access to all of these. Just because someone can’t afford a place to live doesn’t mean they should be without these essential elements of life in a nation as wealthy as the United States. The benefits of such a way station would go well beyond the individuals being served. Such facilities should not be left up to charity organizations.
The most recent employment figures seem to show that the unemployment rate in the US is at its lowest since 1969. Besides the fact that the way such statistics are counted and presented has changed in the last fifty years, there are other problems with using this statistic as an indication of how the nation’s people are faring. Many of the jobs are part-time and many pay the national minimum wage, which is below ten dollars an hour. So, many workers have two jobs and are still barely managing to pay rent, buy food and gas, and pay their bills. Many employed residents of the United States can only afford to pay for one or two of these essentials. In addition, the availability of food subsidies and affordable health care continues to shrink, thanks to legislation decreasing taxes on the wealthy and monies for social services. In cities where very few units of housing for low-income wage earners stand empty, many workers end up living in tents. Others are fortunate enough to have family or friends who can put them up. Either way, having a job (or two) is no longer a guarantee of having a place to live in capitalist America.
We are told there are more than half a million homeless people on any particular day in the US. These are the homeless who are counted; the ones who have let a health clinic, a police officer, or some other public agency know they are homeless. It seems reasonable to assume there are many thousands if not millions more whose housing situation is at best precarious. This situation should be intolerable. Yet, every day we walk or drive by men, women and children living out of shopping bags or backpacks on the streets and sidewalks of the nation. Cities and towns pass laws forbidding those without homes to exist without police harassment and intimidation. These laws strip these individuals of their dignity and often their few belongings. Efforts to address the situation are opposed in some cities by other residents more concerned about their property values than their fellow humans.
In 1982, I was in Washington DC. I had some time to kill so I decided to go visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. When I was a youngster, I did this at least once or twice a year with my parents and teachers. In 1982, I was shocked and appalled to find dozens of homeless men living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks in front of the building. This phenomenon was new. The poverty once associated with skid row was no longer hidden in Reagan’s America. Indeed, it was now on the DC Mall, amongst the monuments to presidents and war heroes. I did not know it at the time, but there was a man named Mitch Snyder who was organizing the homeless and others to fight back against this mean-spirited attack on some of the most disenfranchised residents in these United States. Ronnie Reagan is long gone. His legacy, which will always include those men living in boxes on the sidewalks bordering the DC Mall, is now the status quo. So, it seems, is the acceptance of it by most US residents not yet living in a box or a tent.