Where Greed is a Virtue and Poverty Your Own Damn Fault

The summer of 2021 in Vermont was a fairly decent one for those finding themselves without a place to live inside. The weather was more warm than cold, more dry than wet. July was cooler than usual and rainy, but not to the point where one couldn’t dry off if they woke up in damp clothes. In Burlington, the state’s largest city, the cops were on a work slowdown after close to half the city council had joined with protesters the previous summer and fall demanding defunding. Consequently, those the media calls homeless (I prefer houseless since one can make a home among friends on the streets) were left to their own devices more than usual. Those hanging out on the street, panhandling, and drinking were left alone unless a citizen complained. Even then, the protocol was being told to move on away from the public view. Residents of a camp in some woods in the southern end of town actually built some semi-permanent structures and were provided with food vouchers. Many houseless folks ended up getting vouchers to live in mostly vacant motels, enabling them to stabilize their lives a bit and take a shower whenever they wished.

It’s amazing what having a personal shelter to go home to means to a person. Those who have always had one don’t understand. The instability of living in the rough—as the Brits say—creates a level of insecurity and fear even among the most weathered of us all. Soldiers who slept in the jungles of Vietnam, snakes in the trees, jungle rot, the uncertainty of being the invader in another’s land; even these men can feel uneasy when sleeping in the rough. Cops, vigilantes, teenage punks, criminals hiding among the houseless—it’s not easy or pretty. Those with homes have little to no knowledge of this and those who enlist the police to harass the houseless seem to actually hate the men and women without a roof over the head, a mortgage or a landlord. As someone who was houseless for a while in the 1970s and who until recently worked in public libraries where the houseless are most often welcome, the fact that housing is part of a market angers me as much as a cop beating an innocent person. My late and politically conservative father decried the circumstances that made homes investments instead of places to live. Unfortunately, he never understood how this reality was an essential part of capitalism.

I have a friend I run into a couple of times a week. His name is Albert. He’s a retired RN who was in the air force for a brief time in 1969 or 1970 but was kicked out after a rapid political radicalization occurred. He attributes that radicalization to his attendance at a rally called by the Black Panthers. I believe it was soon after Fred Hampton was murdered by the police in Chicago. Within a couple of months, my friend was kicked out, in large part because of his political views and new outspokenness. Naturally, he was relieved and happy that the military was behind him. Most of us would be.

I mention him because he’s the guy who keeps me up to date on the police actions around and against the houseless. He’s also the guy who criticized the Progressives on the City Council for not being more forceful in their defense of the houseless. There’s another guy who was living rough a year or two ago and ended up being one of the prime movers in defense of those living in the encampment. The efforts he’s been part of led to a City Council hearing on the matter and a presence of citizens at the camp when the police came to shut it down. Ultimately, the camp was fenced off, some tents and other structures were removed and many residents shuffled off to temporary housing in the many half-empty motels I mentioned above. Of course, the motels are half empty because of COVID. In autumns before COVID, it would be the peak season for hoteliers, what with the tourists visiting to view the fall foliage. Unconfirmed reports are condos will be built on the land where the camp was.

I write here about Burlington, but it can be anywhere USA. The cost of housing continues to rise in the Burlington, Vermont area. Homes that cost 250,000 two years ago are now going for 400,000 dollars. Rents for shithole units managed by one of the slumlords in the city have increased by at least a half, In other words, a one-bedroom that costs 1200 dollars a month in 2019 is now going for at least 1800 dollars a month. Many people who make their living in the service industries—which is much of Burlington’s workforce—wonder how they will stay off the streets in the coming winter. Opiate overdoses are increasing exponentially, in part because fentanyl is the main narcotic on the street and many users have mistakenly taken too large of a dose. Another reason for this spike is that there are simply more users now. In the past month, the security at the public library have dealt with at least a half dozen instances of people either shooting up or preparing to shoot up in the bathrooms and elsewhere on the property. In addition, there have been at least two overdoses. Fortunately, neither were fatal.

The narcotics addicts know the world is going to hell. Indeed it is. At a much faster rate than it was five years ago. This isn’t because of the pandemic, but because of the response to it. The madness precipitated by a society that rewards greed and worships war and selfishness is taking its toll on those whose lives are considered meaningless. They are the canaries in the coal mine of capitalism. Their fate is a warning. The rest of us are foolish to ignore it, yet many do, preferring to place their lives into the hands of lying politicians, preachers, and cults that champion a toxic combination of foolishness and ignorance. Like lemmings, we approach the cliff.

I know the desperation that comes from living on the streets too long. It almost enveloped me in the early 1980s. Fortunately, the circumstances of my life changed before the encroaching desperation overwhelmed me. In addition, between my friends and family, I had a support system all too many houseless people don’t have. The cops were not any nicer to those on the streets than they are today, but it seems there were fewer laws against living rough. Housing was certainly cheaper, but it was still unaffordable for those without the means to obtain it. By the end of that decade, the idea of maximizing profit in every human endeavor was well on its way to becoming a universal reality. The capitalist class considered every item, every service, every human action a potential means of profiteering. No longer were homes places to live. Instead, they were a means to profit via their constant selling and reselling. Debt became a positive thing whereby banks profited from the accumulation of it. Clever but ultimately soulless mathematicians contrived algorithms that funneled more capital to those who already had plenty. Greed became a primary virtue for the capitalist class. The elevation of their shell game to economic wisdom created the approaching nightmare the houseless already live in.

Hiding one’s eyes from the despair on the streets will not end it. Nor will expecting good-hearted people and charity agencies to take care of it. Signing up with the Democrats is a lot like the first response while acting as the second. In other words, liberal policies that do not guarantee housing, health care, education, rehab, and food not just to the homeless but to everyone who lives in the United States are not solutions. In fact, they are just another way of delaying the reckoning that sticking one’s head in the sand or donating to the food bank will eventually bring about. Of course, I still donate to the food bank and support legislation to help the poor and marginalized, but I do so knowing full well that the problem resides at the very heart and soul of this nation; its Calvinist approach to human existence and its economic system that not only requires the exploitation of those who own only their labor but makes the greed of the billionaire class into a spiritual virtue instead of the moral failing it truly is. This truth leads me to the conclusion that even though my particular relationship with religion is better kept to myself, I can’t help but think that this nation is much more likely one nation under Satan than a nation under God.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com