A Nation Homeless

Posted: November 17, 2013 in History, Politics

After my last couple of posts about my literal run in with a member of the local homeless community I feel it fit to make a post about my broader views on homelessness in America. I worry that I may have came off as callous to the plight of homeless individuals, which is most assuredly not the case. I’m always one for small charities like giving food or money whenever I can. I have also been involved in larger efforts to help the homeless community and plan to continue for the rest of my life. Through Occupy Santa Cruz and over a decade spent in Santa Cruz I met many homeless individuals, even dated some. I met world famous hackers, local rabble rousers, LGBT youth fleeing abuse, and eloquent veterans with rich lives who sometimes rage at the heavens. That last one, the eloquent veteran, his name is Norman and from what he tells me used to be special forces before things went wrong. Norman lived by the bridge near my house in Santa Cruz for roughly two of my three years at that house and we developed a good rapport, I even called an ambulance for him once and waited with him for the paramedics to come. For me homeless people are people first, whereas I imagine most Americans get caught up on the homeless aspect and forget they are still people. I have always felt this way but much more strongly after nearly becoming homeless myself when I graduated into unemployment, student loan debt, and the Great Recession.

I do not blame the homeless individual who caused my crash for being were he was when he was, I blame our society. The culture of American Capitalism breeds neglect and this man was a product of that neglect. Perhaps he was a veteran (13%), maybe he suffers from an untreated mental disorder (25%) or drug addiction (35%); all of these demographics are neglected in our culture and pushed towards homelessness. Those percents are the aggregate totals across the US, some states and cities have even higher rates. This individual was definitely under the influence of something, either drugs or in an altered mental state for other reasons. It is not his fault he cannot receive proper mental health care or addiction treatment in this country, it is our society’s fault. America could prioritize harm reduction and preventative care, instead we put punitive measures in place to criminalize drug use and homelessness.

In all likelihood I had ridden my bike past this same man before without ever seeing him. I frequently ride down the Guadalupe River trail in San Jose, which was the site for a 100+ person tent city with an annex across the river in the woods (photos to come). Unfortunately, in an act of great compassion, the San Jose city council evicted all the homeless to downtown San Jose, to better resemble San Francisco. This is not the first nor do I expect it to be the last time that particular location will have a camp and the police will clear it out. There is a lifecycle to homeless camps, like with graffiti art; first one small tag or one tent goes unnoticed, then that grows into a larger piece, a larger camp, and then it becomes hard to go back to the way things were. It’s an example of the broken windows theory. San Jose is home to many homeless camps, including the largest in the US by size. While the city council admits that San Jose has a problem with homelessness, there seems to be little political will to do anything about it, other than bicker over the cost of cleanups and evictions.

Members of the homeless community that I have spoken to have mixed views on camps. It is generally felt that if you are a single man the chances of getting into a shelter are slim, they are better for women and those with children. Some individuals feel homeless camps provide safety in numbers, others feel they are breeding grounds for drug abuse and crime (I see this same divide with my homed friends as well). The current trend seems to be towards homeless camps with city support and rules, you can see efforts to do this in Santa Cruz, Sacramento, and Eugene. I certainly feel these camps better alternatives to wandering alone and risking being burned alive or killed by a samurai sword.

Let me return to a previous point that I glazed over, my issues with American Capitalism. Only in America, or maybe China, do we have enough empty homes to give every homeless person five and still have some left over, yet those homes remain empty and the homeless remain freezing to death on Chicago streets. Seriously, there are enough empty homes in this country for every homeless person to have a main house AND a summer house. That doesn’t include foreclosed businesses, like the dozens of abandoned Walmarts around the US who existed only to drive competition under and make room for a Super Walmart in the next town over. At least one Texas town has found a good use for an empty Walmart and filled the husk of evil with the glory of a giant library. Some individuals I knew involved with Occupy Santa Cruz, tried something similar, yet more radical (read: without consent). People often claim capitalism to be the most efficient economic system, I fail to see what is efficient in nearly 19 million empty homes and trillions of dollars of wasted resources now rotting away unoccupied. I fail to see what is efficient in people needing mental health services, scientifically effective rehab, and homes; yet not getting any of it when it should be in abundance. Homes clearly are in abundance, but America is woefully lacking on harm reduction policies like needle exchange and mental health services.

The power is ours to change the world, but power without action is meaningless. In San Jose we have a homelessness problem and a foreclosure problem, just on the street where I work there are a half dozen vacant businesses who have been empty over a year. That is lost revenue for the property owners, the City should step in and convert some of them into homeless shelters. Rather than spend millions of dollars on a “phase one” where they clear out the camps and plan to move the homeless into shelters for “phase two,” why not just jump to phase two and let the camps dissipate on their own? That seems logical to me, if given the option of a new shelter or a camp it’s a fairly easy choice. There clearly is more to it, zoning and other bureaucratic nonsense, but if there was enough political will in the public to put pressure on the city council we could do this.

  1. I commemorate your efforts to help the poor and I cannot agree with you more in regards to the fact that the homeless are people first and must be treated as people. However, I respectfully disagree with you on a few key points. First I disagree that society has values. Society does not have values, individuals have values. Society has no responsibility to the poor, individuals have responsibility to the poor. Furthermore, the only cases in human history where the masses have had the ability to escape poverty have been where they have had largely free trade. There is no alternative way of allowing the ordinary man to improve his economic status that can hold a candle the productive activities which are unleashed in the free enterprise system. In order to bring people out of poverty we need a system that creates wealth not destroys it. I understand completely your frustration with American capitalism. However, if you truly favor helping the homeless and the disadvantaged, which I believe you do, I beg you to reconsider your position. Because the empirical evidence is clearly on the side of capitalism as a means to lift people out of poverty. Having said that, I believe we have a perverted form of capitalism in the U.S today. Perhaps this is why many liberals have converted to socialism. I hope that if you have a chance to read my blog it may persuade you. If not I appreciate your efforts of taking on the personal responsibility of helping homeless individuals and I encourage you not to pass the buck off to society, then no one is responsible to the poor.

    • I have to disagree with your first point of contention. Societies are made up of individuals, no society has ever existed without members of it. I feel you are splitting hairs semantically in a convoluted way which distracts from the main discussion. Societies do have values, the values of the individuals that make them up, but due to generational effects there are value holdovers from past generations that can be called societal values. Example: Most Americans think cannabis should be legal, this is an individual value. Our society after a century of drug war brainwashing does not agree with that individual value, it creates a cognitive dissonance. You saw the same thing with civil rights and MLKs advocacy for breaking unjust laws.

      I think we may have different views on why societies exist. I feel they exist to continue our evolved herd/tribal natures, to help the group over the self. Thus, to me, without debate societies/government exists to protect the body politic. If government/society fails at that task, why have them?

      I agree with you that free trade and a capitalist system are the most liberating economic systems humanity has created, but I was arguing against the current American incarnation of Capitalism. It would seem you are inclined to agree with me. I can not support any form of capitalism that becomes self-destructive to it’s own stability as happened in America in 2008, setting off our Great Recession and a New Great Depression for much of Europe.

      I feel you are falling prey to a common trap. We are caged beasts, born of caged beasts, born of caged beasts. We know nothing other than the yoke of “democracy” and capitalism thrust on us by our forebearers. It is hard to imagine life outside of an enclosure if you have never seen past your confines and left Plato’s Cave.

      We have had systems that created wealth in the past, or at least created goods, without calling them wealth. I do not advocate going back to a barter economy, but money is a form of life with some harsh dictates about modern life. You must have a job or you die, and a job is measured by what someone will pay you, regardless of how meaningful the work is. I have volunteered for countless causes more worthwhile than my present job as a receptionist, yet none of them paid. Capitalism forces us to focus on bread and circuses like jobs and bills rather than trying to improve our species competitiveness in the universe.

      That beingd said, do you have a link to your blog? I can’t seem to find it. I’d love to read it over . Thanks for the well thought out and respectful comment, I’d love to talk more in the future.

  2. http://liberalfanfare.wordpress.com

    I think we probably agree on allot of the some issues. Especially on what some would call crony-capitalism in the U.S. Also, we are really coming to the same conclusion that society is made up of individuals with separate opinions. Many may have common opinions, however, that should not add or subtract from the value of the individual’s opinion. I simply don’t like to view society as having values or opinions because I feel that if we pursue a system under that ideology those that have an opinion that is shared by the minority must submit to the opinion that is shared by the majority.

    Cannabis, which you mentioned, is a perfect example. I actually don’t know if the majority of Americans believe it should be legal. I have no reason not to believe you and I believe it should be legal, however, anyone’s individual opinion on cannabis should be irrelevant to my life. If I wish to consume marijuana why should anyone’s disapproval of the drug effect my ability to do so? If it were legal, those who disapprove would of course not be forced to consume it as it is their right to pursue their own interests of health or whatever.

    I do agree that there are values that are shared by the majority of individuals in society. There exists a need for government to protect these values. In fact a government is essential for a free market to operate effectively. If I were to sell you a meal with meat under the label of vegetarian, a legal system must exist to hold me accountable for fraud and misrepresentation.

    The economics of the great depression and the latest recision is a topic I can discuss forever. I don’t think I will persuade you in this comment of the government’s inability to prevent these events. This is the purpose of institutions such as the Federal Reserve which has only existed since 1913 and has, in my opinion, been the direct cause of these huge instabilities in the economy. How ironic is it that the Federal Reserve was created to prevent bank failures and yet it was during the great depression, after its inception, that this happened on such a large scale!

    I also might add that my largest concern is that a large government created in the name of social justice would not result in our current ideas of social justice but could possibly result in something quite the opposite. After all, the methods used to distribute wealth to some racial elite are the same methods used to ensure an equalitarian distribution.

    • Regarding a majority of Americans supporting cannabis legalization see:

      I am inclined to agree with you regarding too big government, though my caveat always is too big in the wrong places. Our government is huge on the War on Drugs but a big time failure in the War on Poverty. We’re a big spender on prisons, not much on schools. By spending too much on the wrong things like a costly war in Iraq and largely unneeded DHS, we cannot put limited resources into things that matter more.

      I am more inclined towards the freedoms of anarchy than the tyranny of a totalitarianism, even if it was socialist. I don’t see it as mutually exclusive though, we can have maximized freedoms and social programs, even a strong military to boot. You mention a worry about the tyranny of the majority, I’d prefer that any day to a filibuster enforced tyranny of a minority in Congress.

      I’ll check out your blog, thanks for the link and further interesting and informative dialogue.

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