Les Miserables, Living and Dying on American Streets

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Statistics lie. Some lie more than others. The ones regarding unemployment lie brazenly and have done so for years, erasing the very existence of the long-term unemployed by simply deleting them from the regular tally. Statistics about homelessness lie. But they have an excuse: the homeless are hard to keep track of. So we’re told that roughly half a million Americans have no home. But that statistic is belied by one from the National Center on Family Homelessness, which says 2.5 million children are now homeless each year in America. Add those two numbers together and you get three million homeless Americans. But even that statistic probably undercounts the number of people sleeping in tents, cars, subways, cheap hotels, on friends’ couches or just out on concrete under the stars. So estimate, conservatively, that one percent of Americans are homeless. That percentage only moves in one direction: up.

As the average American single-family dwelling price stays stratospheric despite the cratering real estate market (one of the miracles of modern finance) and rents skyrocket, millions of people stare into the abyss of homelessness. “The cost of living is going up so quickly,” Johns Hopkins University professor Meredith Greif told the Washington Post July 3, “—through the price of gas and food and rent – that more people can’t afford a place to live anymore. Everywhere you turn, prices are rising, but wages aren’t keeping up.” If you think this is some fluke, some mistake, you need seriously to reconsider your take on our economy. The game is rigged, and it’s been rigged like this longer than you’ve been alive.

In 2019, before the covid cash stimulus briefly and refreshingly altered the picture, 40 percent of Americans were unable to cough up $400 in an emergency. So for them, eviction often means sleeping in a car, tent or on the sidewalk. These people are modern-day landless serfs. And what’s happening to the rental market they depend on resembles enclosure: just as, centuries ago, English peasants were barred from farming what previously had been common land, nowadays many tenants are no longer allowed to sleep under a roof, because more and more of those single-family roofs are owned by big private companies who charge exorbitant rents, while apartments are reserved for those able to shell out thousands of dollars a month, a challenge even if you earn the supposedly princely sum of $15 per hour. The main difference between the English peasants and twenty-first century American tenants is that enclosure stole what had been a commons in England, while modern evictees had previously paid most of their meager earnings for a roof and a bed.

“Shelter officials in 15 states all reported a dramatic increase in the number of people, particularly single mothers, seeking services this year,” the Post reported. “In some cases, waitlists have doubled or tripled in a matter of months.” The New York Times tells us on July 15 that the problem is not enough affordable housing. Well, yes. But that’s the real estate development racket – it abhors affordable housing, because it is, well, affordable.

Invisible People, the group that publicizes the dreadful reality of homelessness, puts it starkly: “Spangled flags wave from the tents of homeless veterans. Vegas residents are relegated to sewers like rodents. New York City’s shelters fill with families torn, not by faults but by circumstances. Children’s last belongings are tossed callously into garbage receptacles [by] police…Millennials fearing poverty never leave home.” According to this organization, gentrification and vacation rental companies fuel homelessness. No surprise there. Those two markets cater to the rich, and as far as they are concerned, housing is a privilege, not a right, reserved for the wealthy.

“Inside the lawless tunnel network below the Las Vegas strip, where thousands of homeless people live in fear of being washed away,” headlined an Insider summary back on September 11, 2019. The story sensationalized the crime and drug abuse of those living in “a network of sewage tunnels.” Youtube’s “Wonders of the World” even featured a clip on the “civilization of the homeless in the tunnels under Las Vegas.” They may indeed have a civilization, as perhaps do those who have inhabited New York City’s subway tunnels for decades, but one word describes a society that drives people to such desperation: barbaric.

It’s been that way a long time. Years ago, as the lone housing reporter in Manhattan for the Village Voice, my first column described a Greek immigrant, whose corpse had been found, his face eaten by rats, in a dilapidated Hell’s Kitchen tenement unheated in winter and in every way sedulously neglected by its landlord. At least that owner did not evict his low-income and elderly tenants at gunpoint, as did some landlords, salivating at the prospect of cashing in on the real estate boom. Their crimes, viewed up close, provided quite an education on the class war, indeed gave new meaning to the term.

So it’s no surprise the destitute take to the sewers. On the street, police roust and pummel them. Their presence in public is criminalized, with laws against sleeping on benches, loitering or eating food handed out by the kind-hearted. City police routinely destroy their encampments and trash their meager possessions. Why? Because their existence offends the affluent, who find their misery unsightly, who believe they should not be reminded that in order for the extreme capitalism that serves them so well to function, millions nationally, billions globally, have been dispossessed. In this business of stealing homeless peoples’ tents, clothes, medicines and other few possessions, the Los Angeles police have been absolutely and resoundingly trend-setting.

“As politicians look to build public support for homeless encampment sweeps,” reported Jonny Coleman for The Appeal on May 26, “they’re using tactics popularized in L.A. – the site of one of the nation’s most intense battles over the unhoused.” According to Coleman, “in March 2021, more than 400 militarized LAPD officers descended on Echo Park Lake to destroy a large encampment.” Police arrested or detained over 180 people, Coleman wrote, “and brutalized many more, including members of the media and random bystanders.” The city displaced over 183 people at a policing cost of over $2 million.

Coleman cited three tactics in these displacements: 1) Misleading rhetoric to portray raids as good for the homeless; 2) Fearmongering by conflating homelessness with substance abuse and mental illness; 3) Solutions directed to nonprofits that perpetuate the status quo. Who uses these tactics? Everybody. The NYPD swept away a homeless encampment near Tompkins Square Park in April, arresting eight. “Late last year in San Francisco,” the mayor ignited “a series of encampment sweeps” in the Tenderloin district, while “in Chicago, Fireman’s Park has become a frequent target for homeless removal.”

This is not primarily a mental health problem or a drug abuse problem. It is an economic problem, created by a monstrous economic system that renders millions of people redundant, disposable, deprives them of shelter, then of a living and then unleashes its militarized police, or, if you will, its Gestapo, on them. That chaotic, decaying and lethal system, late capitalism, devoted to one thing and one thing only, namely serving and enriching a billionaire oligarchy, is the same one destroying the biosphere, for those same financial titans. Whatever it touches, it ruins. It is a death cult. Whether it’s the environment or ordinary people or dying species, this economic arrangement withers everything that lives. In this, if nothing else, it is hideously consistent. The wretched of the earth, les miserables, live desperately and often die on our city and suburban streets. This has been the case for decades, but there are many more of them now, as monopolies jack up prices and average people go broke.

To repeat: there’s only one way these numbers move, and that’s up.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.