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.