Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Reverse New Deal - An all-out attack on the homeless (part 6 of 10): Banished to the tunnels, to the storm drains, and to the undersides of bridges

Above: In this 2009 Nightline segment, Lisa Ling explores the storm drains running under Las Vegas, where hundreds of homeless people live. The problem continues today.   

Above: In this video, several homeless men discuss what it's like living under a bridge. Note at the beginning of the story that the reporter says that most of the men want to live under the bridge. But, with the exception of perhaps one man, this is not what the story indicates. One man states that it's hard to find a place to live and that he feels abandoned. Another says he was kicked out of his residence and joined his homeless girlfriend. And, in general, the men say that social services are confusing and unresponsive. Indeed, the journalist betrays her original statement by reporting, at the end, that the men are not happy with their current lives.

Homelessness is a complex problem. When I worked in Americorps, in the early 2000s, one of my job duties was giving assistance at a homeless shelter near Catonsville, Maryland. At the shelter, I met all types. There were two middle-school students who would meet their mother at the shelter every night at 7pm. There was a young couple with a baby who lived in their car until the shelter opened in the evening. There was at least one mentally ill person--a man who was constantly discussing how he had fought heavyweight boxing champions (it's not totally impossible that he was a boxer earlier in his life, but he had obvious mental health issues on display at the shelter). There was another man who worked as a baker, but spent most of his money on a drug habit. And then there were people who had lost jobs and simply ran out of money to pay for mortgage or rent. A common theme throughout most of the stories, however, was a lack of a good social network (friends, family, and other social connections).

One of the main obstacles to solving homelessness in the United States, is the propensity of many Americans to stereotype the homeless. In their view, every American is born with the same opportunities to succeed--and only those who fail to work hard, and fail to make the right decisions, will not succeed. This child-like, demonstrably false view of the world prevents us from addressing the problem of homelessness in a more comprehensive manner because the homeless are stereotyped as lazy drug-abusing criminals who want to be homeless.

There is no doubt that some homeless people really do want to live away from society, but I believe that they are the minority, and that the majority would prefer to have an apartment, home, or some other type of decent shelter that provides a basic level of privacy and stability. We should be helping these people more, even if they've made mistakes in their lives. As I wrote a few days ago, if incompetent or criminal mistakes on Wall Street have led to few consequences--and, in many cases, even enriched the perpetrators--then why should the mistakes of non-wealthy people be so perpetually damning? Simply because of their non-wealthy status? That doesn't sound like a just or fair thing in the land of supposed "equal opportunity." (See Robert Reich's op-ed "Why Donald Trump and Big Corporations Get Breaks that Ordinary People Don't: People with lots of money can avoid consequences of bad bets—not you and me")

New Deal policymakers understood that humans make mistakes, that they fall down from time to time, and that they also, sometimes, are stomped on through no fault of their own. They also understood that the Christian thing to do, the decent thing to do, was to help the fallen. Further, they were willing to help the fallen through government programs...if and when charity, philanthropy, and the "job creators" showed that they were not up to the task (as happened during the Great Depression). Isn't it ironic that so many of our political "leaders" today, who repeatedly tell us that America is a Christian nation, are not willing to do the same? They're not willing to expand government help--as the New Deal policymakers did--even as the number of homeless children has reached a record high, and even as charity, philanthropy, and the "job creators" have shown, yet again, that they are not up to the task, despite their enormous wealth (see, for example, "Wealth of Forbes 400 Billionaires Equals Wealth of All 41 Million African-Americans," Huffington Post, January 21, 2014, "Donor-advised funds: Where charity goes to wait," Boston Globe, December 1, 2013, and "The religious right is a fraud: Nothing Christian about Michele Bachmann’s values," Salon, October 15, 2013).

President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference" (from the book American-Made, by Nick Taylor).

Welcome to the Reverse New Deal: A government frozen in the ice of its own indifference....banishing the homeless to the tunnels, to the storm drains, and to the undersides of bridges.

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