Want to feed the US homeless? Be prepared to pay for the privilege
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Fri Nov 14 13:36:54 GMT 2014
Want to feed the homeless? Be prepared to pay the government for the privilege
Cities are enacting politics to keep homeless
people out of sight and uphold a social order
riven by racial and economic inequality
Friday 14 November 2014 12.45 GMT
arnold abbott homeless
Arnold P Abbott tangled with law enforcement
because he was feeding homeless people in public
on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Photograph: Andrew Innerarity/Reuters
Homeless people, by definition, have nowhere to
go but now in many cities, they have even fewer
options. While real estate developers tout green
space and the economic revitalisation of urban
landscapes, its the sidewalks, parks and plazas
that have become hostile territory for the poor.
City lawmakers are trying to clean up the
streets by barring homeless people from parks,
shunting families into overcrowded shelters and,
in some places, making it a crime even to help the homeless.
Last week, when a 90 year-old activist
arrested for feeding local homeless people at the
beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his outrage
pointed to a nationwide trend of criminalising
compassion in the United States.
to the National Coalition for the Homeless, since
the start of 2013, 21 cities have imposed
measures to restrict people from sharing food
with the needy in public.
downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, for example,
churchgoers have been prohibited from
distributing food to homeless people in a local
park in a residential area.
Raleigh, North Carolina, local humanitarians have
reportedly been banned from giving meals to the
needy in city parks without first getting a
temporary special permit that costs some $1,600 per weekend.
Meanwhile, local governments have used quality
of life strictures as a pretext for barring
homeless peoples public presence. About a third
by the National Law Center on Homelessness &
Poverty have sought to destroy homeless dwellings
by prohibiting camping in public a 60%
increase since 2011. About the same percentage of
cities also ban loitering and some explicitly
prohibit sitting or lying down in certain public
places presumably just to make sure the homeless dont get too comfortable.
While a city can profit from the fines, fees,
tourism revenues and real estate investment
generated by commodifying public space, the
ultimate cost is borne by those who can least
afford it: the impoverished and the homeless.
These days, even those who reach out with a
simple act of charity are punished for their misconduct.
But these regulations arent about maintaining
quality of life for the local communitys
residents: the laws are simply about colonising
the commons to make it safe for the rich,
typically to the exclusion of others. Their
proponents are using the allure of social harmony
to paper over the shame of massive inequality.
The anti-homeless crackdown is just the latest
the long history of the battle for common space.
Governments have always deployed nuisance laws
to marginalize unruly people whom the affluent
disdained as an environmental blemish: beggars
were rousted, vulgar gathering spots like bawdy
houses got busted in vice raids. And today,
low income tenants get policed at every turn,
systematically displaced by development and
zoning policies that
The authorities have a point: some elements of
urban life do make the streets seem disorderly,
even chaotic. But simply erasing them from the
landscape degrades the color and vitality of the
urban social fabric. More dangerously, by
excluding working-class people from common
spaces, cities scrub their streets of evidence of
the real human condition without solving any
actual social problem just the appearance of one.
Handing out food to the homeless is certainly not
a long-term solution to homelessness or chronic
hunger. But eliminating charity isnt magically
going to make homeless people opt for a different
lifestyle. The choices of the homeless are
constrained by the absence of social programs,
healthcare and income support that people need to
find permanent housing and stability. Policies
that criminalise the mere sight of homeless
people uphold a social order riven by racial and
economic inequality and social alienation, while
privatising what few shared resources we have left.
As millions struggle with joblessness and
stagnant wages, many low-income households are
just one medical emergency or missed rent payment
away from homelessness.
to the National Low Income Housing Coalition,
amid soaring rents, extremely low-income families
face a deficit in the supply of affordable
housingof roughly 4.4m affordable units.
Meanwhile, the supply of subsidised public
housing has tumbled by about 10,000 units per year.
This widespread instability is the reason why
than 600,000 people nationwide were without a
home on a given night in 2013 a quarter of them
children. Many could be served by welfare, mental
health and transitional housing programs, but
they are isolated from the social service
infrastructure and now theyre being shut out of
parks and shoved off the streets.
There is, of course, a more straightforward way
of eliminating homelessness: providing them with
Housing First approach runs on the philosophy
that homelessness is primarily a housing problem,
and that housing is a human right. The first step
is to satisfy the immediate need for stable
shelter, and then supplement that with
long-term supportive services from case
management for someone seeking drug treatment to
placing someone in job training, or just helping
someone pay her first security deposit.
proven successful in significantly alleviating
homelessness in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and
Seattle, and Housing First been shown in various
studies to limit the time that people spend in
jails, shelters and hospitals. And, under this
approach, homeless people arent arrested or
banished from sight: they get access to stable
housing and supportive social services. Taxpayers
win, too, as long-term solutions eliminate costly
short-term interventions and emergency room visits.
If this common-sense solution seems absurdly
obvious, remember why cities resort to exclusion
and policing in the first place: weve grown
accustomed to seeing walls and fences as the only
solution. After generations of trying to make
undesirable people vanish from the publics
midst, too many privileged people no longer even
recognise the signs of desperation that surround
us . Weve forgotten what our own humanity looks like.
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