February 13, 2017 (Fault Lines) — In cities all across this nation, homeless people are moved around like pawns in a chess game cities don’t want to win. Resources provided by taxpayers are used to pay for crews to come in with dump trucks, hazmat suits and police escorts. Tents and cardboard shelters, and the meager possessions of poor people, are then loaded up and taken away. The people scatter.
But to where?
Actions in Seattle, Washington in recent months and Santa Ana, Berkeley and Oakland, California in recent weeks are just a few examples of how much city officials will do to avoid a real solution. Once an encampment is wiped clean, homeless people, at that point without any possessions, often head off to all points of the compass. But they don’t leave town.
It is true that these gathering places under freeways, in riverbeds or city parks can become messy. The trash, shopping carts, tents, tarpaulins, and cardboard-fashioned into shelters; it doesn’t look good. Factor in the lack of bathroom facilities and it’s horrible. Nobody wants to live that way, but humans value companionship and there’s safety and some form of solidarity in number. So as more people fall to the streets, the places where they gather become larger.
But dispersing people is an expensive and temporary measure. Public spokesliars often use the “for their own safety trope” while defending these actions, but dispersing a group and forcing people from a position of at least minor safety and community into wandering the streets alone is not safe for anyone and costs quite a bit of money.
Part of the problem is community-wide lack of sympathy. People are not looking close enough. The homeless are not just a bunch of drug-addled bearded hippies accompanied by equally scruffy pit bulls. Increasingly they are elderly. Increasingly, they are women. When rents are too high and jobs don’t pay enough, people will land on the street. Even longtime homeowners who have always contributed to their community are pushed out by rising property taxes.
The people who complain about how the homeless are an eyesore and criminal element have never suffered; they have always had someone there to catch them if they fall. They wonder why people would live on the street. Why they don’t just move somewhere more affordable?
It’s simple. Hitchhiking is illegal now. Even if one could move to a more, as they say, “affordable” locale, guess what? Omaha, Nebraska doesn’t need more homeless people on their streets either. Nor does Bisbee, Arizona, nor any other place you could randomly select. There is no more affordable place. Moving a homeless person from one place to another, whether fifty yards or five hundred miles, is not relocation. Moving homeless people around through enforcement actions that target a person’s economic status or even through sheer wishful thinking will never solve this problem.
While the justice department has weighed-in on this several times, it hasn’t had any impact other than as a quotable detail for activists making their points. It’s really going to take a local effort. There are structures and properties in many large cities that could be accommodated as interim housing. It’s not a lack of funding preventing these things from happening; it’s a lack of will and an abundance of greed.
Affordable housing is a term that has lost its meaning. Just ask the residents of “The Reserve,” 216 units housing 670 people in San Jose, California who are all to be evicted, who did nothing wrong. How many of them will end-up on the streets? In their case rent control did nothing to save them from a developer who cares only about moving in a wealthier class of people so already rich people can make more money.
Plenty of people, who did everything they were supposed to, are similarly affected by circumstances similar to those folks in San Jose. Pay your taxes, get an education, and contribute to your community. But education didn’t live up to its promise of better jobs and big developers don’t care about your community.
If you want to get people off the streets in your town, head down to the city council meeting with your friends and neighbors and let them know that giving in to developers who line city coffers and enrich politicians while tossing hard-working people out of their homes is a sure way to get voted off the council.