The Death Penalty for Homelessness

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

You can measure the depth of a civilization by how it treats its poor, very young, elderly and mentally ill. By any such metric, ours here in the Exceptional Empire is barbaric. Take New York City mayor Eric Adams and his pronouncements on the homeless destitute. He made a name for himself with stunts like proclaiming he’ll incarcerate people for erratic behavior. Since lotsa homeless are erratic – they either started that way, which was partly how they lost shelter, or living rough eroded their good manners – they are the target population for being locked up. Not to be outdone, presidential candidate Donald “I’m the Real President” Trump swears he’ll ship the homeless to camps outside cities, so they’ll stop “blighting” urban areas. The equation between human beings and trash should cause all antifascist antennae to quiver.

Once upon a time, we had governments concerned about the root causes of poverty and leaders who sought to ameliorate it with good ideas like public housing. Well, after decades of hysterical, lousy press, public housing has received little new funding and the number of poor people it serves shrank pitiably from its heyday in the mid to late twentieth century. This means more people sleeping on sidewalks.

Look at New York City’s housing voucher program to counter homelessness. For some inexplicable bureaucratic reason, it’s ditching renters. The vouchers cover a big percentage of a person’s rent, in a city notorious for astronomical housing costs. “Few tools are as important as vouchers when it comes to addressing New York City’s swelling homelessness problem,” Mihir Zaveri reported in the New York Times April 5, “more than 26,000 households have used the program to find apartments since 2018.” So a city agency’s dysfunction, leading to kicking people out of the voucher program, is a disaster. Many of these luckless souls wind up dwelling in homeless shelters or on the streets. And that’s often lethal.

Over 815 homeless people have died in public places in New York since 2022, most recently and notably Jordan Neely, whose obstreperous destitution offended a fellow subway rider, Daniel Penny, who strangled Neely to death. Penny is white, Neely was Black, though ex-marine Penny claimed May 20 that he is not a white supremacist. The media and mayor Adams downplayed the viciousness of this crime, because, according to Adams, “there were serious mental health issues in play here.” What else would you expect from a former cop? When called to assist people cracking up, police routinely shoot and kill them. Adams unwittingly implies that the Nazi response to schizophrenics is acceptable: murder them.

Surprising no one, the far-right supports the killer. “An online fundraiser for his legal defense,” the Times reported May 19, “amassed more than $2.6 million in donations after it was promoted by conservative politicians.” The depth of hatred of the poor in the U.S. is truly shocking. People willingly contribute to those who heinously rid them of the dispossessed and blithely finance those who choke them to death. There’s one word for this: depravity. And it’s beyond depraved in our neighbor to the north, Canada, which touts state-assisted suicide as a solution to poverty in general and homelessness in particular.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports May 22 that unhoused seniors flood shelters that can’t accommodate their needs. “Nearly a quarter of a million people 55 or older are estimated by the government to have been homeless in the United States during at least part of 2019,” the Post reported, and this year, the number of elderly homeless spiked. Indeed, seniors constitute the fastest growing cohort of the undomiciled. Quite a way to spend your sunset years, snoozing on the sidewalk, alongside the utterly helpless psychotic.

Adams wants to remove those who “appear mentally ill” from public. The purpose is not to treat them or salve their psychological wounds, in which case such removal would be acceptable, even laudable. But no, Adams’ purpose is to incarcerate them, so their shabby selves won’t offend the sensibilities of the well-to-do and mega-rich who regard city centers as their playgrounds. “Policies such as California Governor Gavin Newson’s CARE Court and numerous ‘anti-camping’ ordinances…allow for the removal and detention of people who are unhoused and deemed mentally ill,” according to Truthout May 6, “under threat of involuntary commitment or even conservatorship.” Supposedly compassionate, these policies fall far short of providing appropriate treatment for the insane or adequate housing for those who lack it.

The truly malignant aspect of this is the one that treats poverty as proof of dangerous and savage psychosis. Economic failure in this brutal late capitalist jungle becomes medical and criminal. A deadly combo. And if the homeless destitute manage to evade the cops who want to lock them up in tiny cages, they still face existential threats on the streets, most notably death from exposure or from violent criminals.

The death toll for the homeless destitute, reports the New York Times May 13 “in San Diego County had increased nearly 10 times in the last decade.” That’s the same in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin, Denver and Seattle. It turns out not having a roof over your head is fatal. There’s the cold in winter, extreme, climate-change-aggravated heat in summer and the inherent danger of living in public, now enhanced by vigilante fury, stoked by ambitious pols like mayor Adams.

The risks and wretchedness faced by the unhoused don’t count for much to a public inured to their plight by ideology and lies, a public that just wants homelessness to disappear. A public brainwashed by reactionary politicos and their media mouthpieces into thinking the only so-called solution is prison or booting these unsightly vagabonds out of cities and into camps. Housing stipends, vouchers, affordable apartments and the bureaucratic structure necessary to create these aren’t sexy. They don’t win fascist politicians votes. What does is public hysteria over penniless, oddly behaved people, then keeping that frenzy on a steady simmer. It’s called demagoguery.

Lucklessly for these very poor people, we live in the Age of the Demagogue. Most politicians will stoop to it whenever it brings them votes. But those who merit the title full-time are the worst hazard. They don’t want to solve problems and make powerless constituents’ lives better. They want to scream about them, whip up a public convulsion of hatred and ride that spasm of widespread rage to higher office. Not surprisingly, few seem to hold them to account. On the contrary, press outlets nod approval for vigilante justice against the crime of poverty.

“For years before Jordan Neely was killed in New York’s subway, the city had its eye on him,” wrote the New York Times May 13. “He was on a list informally know as the top 50, a roster of people who stand out for the severity of their troubles and their resistance to accepting help.” Thus even the “paper of record” excuses cold-blooded murder of the undomiciled poor. No doubt when the next fascist president breaks ground on concentration camps for those guilty of penury, that same news outlet will excuse it by noting that those incarcerated were a threat to polite society, that the police had their names on a list and that we’re better off without all those unsightly homeless people, anyway. Quite an economic system we got here. It strips millions of people of the means of survival, then blames and punishes them for their dispossession. If you call that civilization, you need to rethink your definition of the term.

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