FOUR ENCLOSED WALLS

Right now it is -12 degrees F outside. Weather like this is life-threatening, but I'm lying on a couch in a t-shirt watching The Simpsons and typing on a laptop. The worst thing I have to worry about at the moment is cabin fever, as by Tuesday I'll have been stuck in the house for three days. The weather is at worst a minor inconvenience to me because I live indoors. I assume that most of you are in the habit of taking this for granted, as I am. But a few times per year when the weather is particularly brutal I walk home from work thinking, you know, it really wouldn't be very pleasant to sleep on a park bench right now.

The older I get, the more I realize how tenuous is our hold on the basic comforts of middle-class life. Whether or not we realize it, every single one of us is three misfortunes away from being homeless. You get fired. You get sick while you have no insurance. You decide to self-medicate with cheap vodka. Your path to poverty and homelessness is smooth and clear at that point. We like to think we're better than being homeless; sometimes we find out the hard way that we're not.

Over the weekend I saw a handful of news stories about one city or another is devoting resources to getting the homeless indoors during the "Arctic Blast" affecting half the country today. It's just the sort of band-aid approach Americans are good at. Certainly it's good that the homeless will have a better chance of getting indoors when it's -20. But what about when things go back to normal and it's "only" 10 or 20 degrees rather than below zero? Hundreds of homeless people die of hypothermia in comparatively tame winter weather every year.

It's not a problem any of us really like thinking about. We go out of our way to avoid making eye contact with homeless people so we can pretend they don't exist or, failing that, that they're not human. If we look at them and talk to them like people ("Sorry, I don't have any cash on me" or "OK, here you go. I hope you have a good one.") then we have a much harder time pretending that we're fundamentally different. Don't get me wrong, I'm an irritable person and when a completely insane panhandler is all over me I'm doing my best to get away. But if those of us who lucky enough to have four walls and a roof treat homeless people like people it's much harder to forget that there but for the grace of god go any of us.

Maybe that's why Americans expend so much time and energy belittling and lecturing the homeless (and the poor in general). We're not afraid of them so much as we're afraid of how much of ourselves we see in them.

27 thoughts on “FOUR ENCLOSED WALLS”

  • Yes. I'm generally not a conspiracist, but I sometimes wonder if the recentish seeming proliferation of the homeless is not some kind of warning to the rest of us. "Do what you're told or die in the gutter". I don't really think that's the case, it's hard times all around, and obviously many of them are mentally ill, alcoholic, etc. But it's still frightening.

    I ate at McD's at lunch today with my ex and her elderly not all there anymore mom (a BFF to be sure) and caught the eye of a seemingly homeless young woman a couple times. I didn't have any money and she didn't ask, but I'm cold in my house tonight. I know there are people living outside nearby and it sucks that we as a society can't take care of each other. What the hell's wrong with us? I'm not religious by any stretch but have been going to church with my mother-in-law of late, so I'm especially disgusted by the right wing "Christian" "fuck the poor" ethos.

  • It's depressing as hell. Living abroad I have a hard time explaining to foreigners (natch, South Koreans) that America is in many ways a third-world country — huge numbers of homeless, highest number of incarcerated adults, large swaths of the country with shit internet and cell phone reception, many cities with ultra-shitty and/or non-existent public transportation.

    It truly is the new Gilded Age.

  • middle seaman says:

    The absence of a safety net to prevent homelessness and lack of medical services are unique to the American system. Other developed countries do much better.

    Things got substantially worse in the last five years when it became an almost official that the rich 1% control the country. Now we are all expendable and can be on the street in no time.

    In theory we can vote this new oppressive regime out. In practice, elections are run by the 1% and change is not easy to achieve.

  • I think of homelessness as being the challenge of each successive generation of communities, individuals, and policy-makers. I cannot speak to the former two. I think, though, that we can compare how policy-makers respond to such explosions of the shockingly impoverished.

    Is it rose-colored glasses to think of the Democratic response to the homelessness of the Great Depression as a "good" instance of what to do? Probably–yet the monument to FDR in D.C. includes an image of homeless men as an instance of the challenges that faced him in his first year, and one of the issues that he sought passionately to address.

    Is it whatever-the-hell-is-the-opposite-of-rose-colored glasses to think of the Reagan administration's response to the homelessness of his fuck-subsidized-living-and-let's-kick-the-mentally-ill-out-on-the-street-and-also-step-up-the-drug-war-and-*blame*-homeless-addicts-for-their-plight as the "bad"instance of what to do?

    It's cheap to say "Democrats solve the homelessness problem created by Republicans"–and it's not true. Clinton signed off on NAFTA and Welfare "Reform", simultaneously getting a lot of Americans fired and a lot of those same people out of their homes. Yet the conviction of Republicans that "Government Can't Help" means that when they are in the ascendancy of political culture, they insure that nothing gets done *and* they actively discourage individuals and communities from helping out because they create an ethos that stigmatizes the homeless, and therefore makes people less likely to help them because fuck 'em, the lazy bastards. (See as evidence: Fox News's latest horror of "going undercover to prove that the homeless are just lazy con-men" story.)

    I wish I had somewhere good to go with this; I don't. I suppose volunteering is really the only solution–sustained effort on the part of individuals and communities can and should be part of our national character. It isn't.

  • I think about this issue a lot. Not for others, for me. I am incredibly thankful that I have a defined benefit retirement plus SS. I also inherited 100K a few years ago that I turned over to the credit union money guy. Ditto my wife. We live comfortably. But we also live among seniors that really have to stretch that minimum SS. I know that the money equation has been calculated a million times before… one cruise missile equals X homeless whatevers. But, there you go.

  • It"s not so bad, if you're prepared for. Though my van is little more that a metal tent, it does keep the wind and the rain out. A heavy down bag inside a heavy fiber bag can be to warm, even in sib-zerl

  • We like to think we're heroes when we give some poor guy some cash, or when some wealthy guy gives some money to a private charity. Instead of addressing the structural and policy issues that makes these things possible. Some wealthy schmuck gives $100,000 to a charity, everyone talks about what a great guy he is. Raise taxes so the safety net is expanded and wealthy guy pays more than the 100K and listen to him bitch. If he, or we, want to give then that's a good thing. But there is no larger expectation that he should, or that we have some responsibility to our society.
    My favorite double-speak these days is listening to repubs, and it seems to be from my cheese state, talk about how kicking people off of Medicaid and Food Stamps is actually a good thing since they're being freed from they're dependence on gov't. It's frightening to me to think where we've ended up on all of this.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "You decide to self-medicate with cheap vodka."
    BUSTED!!!
    Sorta.
    Only there is no such thing as "cheap" vodka – only "cheaper" vodka.
    And I partake of that holy water, daily.

    Here's my take on this –
    Conservative/GOP POV:
    From a news article – "Congress’s decision to cut off long-term unemployment benefits wasn’t just punitive and nasty, it was also fiscally irresponsible."

    Yes, yes, all of that is true.
    Very true.

    But best of all, it's cruel!
    Empirically, objectively, and abjectly, CRUEL!

    We love to kiss-up, and kick-down.

    In case you haven't noticed, we have devolved into "The Party of Cruelty!!!"

    We cherry-pick our passages in the Old Testament that justify our cruelty, and pay no attention to that DFH's bullshit in the 2nd part of the Bible.

    WTF did he know, the late Iron Age gay asshole, hanging around with his gay buddies, eating, walking around lecturing everyone, and helping the poor.
    What a hippie freak!

    To make a long story short, we don't just want to put non-rich and entitled people down.
    No!!
    That's not enough.
    We've got to STOMP on them, and grind our boots into their necks and faces, when they're down and helpless!!!!!
    It's who we are.

    BWAH-HA-HAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • The local paper in NC recently had an op-ed about what a wonderful, wonderful thing it is to cut food stamps. Using a hypothetical single mother of two working a minimum-wage job, the op-ed rhapsodized about how cutting her food stamps would be snipping her chains that were keeping her from applying for a $55,000/year job that would let her feed her kids without aid.

    The delusion was staggering. Conservatives really have convinced themselves that there are hundreds of good-paying jobs (in many parts of NC, $55k/year is a living wage) just lying around unfilled because people truly enjoy filling out paperwork and taking drug tests so they can hold on to minimum-wage jobs and keep getting food stamps.

  • sub-zero temps (fracking 'smart' phone). Layered clothing but not too layered: you don't eant to sweat, which will then freeze to your skin. Propane. heat is ok, if you're paying attention. It can catch your hidey-hole on fire if you're not, or suck all the O2 out. Alcohol in any quantity will kill you quicker than anything.

    Of course I've lived around here nearly sixty years, hunting, fishing, camping, and we've only a night or two of the sub-zero temps we used to see for weeks at a stretch. And I don't think of myself as "homeless". Sleeping in my van is an inconvenience. Like this stupid smart phone.

    Six years ago I was teaching an adjunct load in Computer Science at the local community college. All it took was racist in a position to get away with it.

    It doesn't mattet how fancy your rig is, if you're living in it you're homeless.

    No fear.

  • Whatever safety net provision a Democrat comes up with, the Republican 'realist' answers in agreement EXCEPT that you have to make sure that only the 'deserving' benefit.

    Unfortunately, there rarely seem to be many who qualify. Unfortunately, the cost of the bureaucracy needed to enforce those qualifications is greater than anyone wants to pay…

    Clinton's welfare reform, the ACA (vs single-payer), Medicaid, Florida's drug tests…

    In my state it has been written into law that relevant agencies MUST make sure that no money goes to illegal aliens. It costs more to check than it would to just give 'em the money!

    Again and again, public policy says check even though it costs more to check than it would to just give 'em the money!

    We always want to help the little guy–but we don't want to give anyone a break.

  • Surprised you don't have anything to say about all the taxpayers who are partaking of snow removal services after spending so much time bitching about taxes and government incompetence. Yes, we hate government until we get sideswiped by a sudden and major disaster, and then it's all 'OMG come help me!"

  • I don't think the powers that be put the homeless there to remind us to shut up and do what we're told, but I don't think they mind that the homeless seem to serve that function. My wife and I make excellent salaries even by Bay Area standards, and I'm still afraid that one day I'll be homeless.

  • I generally try, unless a panhandler seems aggressive or is getting in my face, to make eye contact and respond quickly that I'm sorry, I don't have any cash (in fact, I almost never carry cash, 21st century baby).

    Most college age students standing on sidewalk corners with brochures pushing donations for one nonprofit or another are more aggressive than panhandlers. I ignore them.

  • Of course you do sometimes have to be careful with eye contact. I accidentally made eye contact with an obviously mentally ill man ranting in a Burger King in Miami, and he cornered me in my booth and yelled at me about masturbation for what seemed like an eternity.

  • Wandering around downtown Seattle over the course of a couple of months, my solution to the panhandlers working their various corners was to round up the loose change and dollar bills and stuff them into a pocket before heading out so I didn't have to say, "Sorry, I don't have any loose change."

    My role model was a street corner in Mexico city, adjacent to a stop on a very busy street. A legless beggar was there daily, and every car that slowly progressed through the inevitable traffic jam around that corner – and I do mean every single one – reached an arm out of the driver's window and dropped a few centavos into the guy's pot.

  • I have nothing substantial to contribute to this discussion, but I have for Ed a nearly-useless tip ('nearly useless' in that you are likely to forget this information before the next opportunity to use it): yields ° (the symbol for degree, e.g. -12° ).

    (Unless you're using a Mac, in which case I refer you to

    http://www.forlang.wsu.edu/help/keyboards2.asp)

  • Huh. The key bit of text disappeared from that comment. Let me try again: alt 248 yields ° (the symbol for degree, e.g. -12° ).

  • Yes, but it's not just fear. Maslow's hierarchy: once your physiological and safety needs have been met, you stop being aware of them as needs, for yourself or for others. If you are not struggling for survival, you don't automatically feel that anyone else is either.

    You can be taught to notice the survival deficiencies of others (it's called empathy, and it doesn't come naturally) but if your parental or social education did not explicitly address the issue, you probably won't get that it's a problem. It just won't compute.

    Poor people are constantly reminded of their deficits and are more prone to share, to take care of each other and accept care. Rich people (not nouveau riche so much, but historically those who come from money) were trained to be charitable (for a variety of reasons). But bourgeois monkeys who have just made it to a satisfyingly high branch can't see those still fighting their way out of the floodwater — and freak out when they get a glimpse. They will step on the heads of others to get away from the flood, and do their best to put the reality out of their minds.

    The farther away you get from the struggle to survive, the more likely you are to say, "Screw you, I got mine" — or act on that philosophy, even if the words themselves sound repellent in your ear.

    P.S.: I often pass a buck to panhandlers and talk to them when I can. (Feeling heard is feeling human.) If they use their money to buy a hit of dope (a lottery ticket, a comic book, or any inessential item) that is not for me to judge. It's a gift, not a loan. Some folks pass out McDonald's vouchers or the like, and more power to them. If it makes someone miserable feel good for a few minutes, it's worth a buck to me.

  • Thanks for this, Ed. I was thinking about this just yesterday and wondering if we'll see any stories whatsoever on the number of homeless people who have died in these temps. Of course I know the answer to that…

    And Ladiesbane, I can think of no better illustration for your point than the underpass (probably one of many) in D.C. that seems to be a de facto homeless camp–mere blocks away from the Capital and what all congresscritters must pass in their cars to and from work. How they can drive by that every day and still stand up in Congress and holler about spoiling the poor by giving them food stamps is completely beyond me.

  • Daragh McDowell says:

    "Whether or not we realize it, every single one of us is three misfortunes away from being homeless. You get fired. You get sick while you have no insurance. You decide to self-medicate with cheap vodka."

    Actually, that second misfortune only applies if you live in a country with an advanced economy that nevertheless does not have universal basic health coverage for all of it's citizens. Since such a system would be both fiscally ruinous as well as self-evidently barbarous, you can probably rest… oh wait. Sorry, 'bout that. I've lived my entire life in Canada and Western Europe so… I guess I'll just get my coat then.

  • You soshulist! Healthcare is a privilege, not a right, because…well because doctors had to go to med school and so they um need to make lots of money or something. And death panels. And poor people smell. And communism.

  • I was just thinking about this yesterday when reading an article in the San Francisco Guardian about a woman who went from having a good job to losing her home and living in a minivan with her young daughter after she had a a couple of injuries.

    http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Family-gains-hope-after-mother-s-injuries-5114553.php

    I wonder how many Americans who live in comfortable circumstances are aware of how fragile those circumstances are and how just a single piece of bad luck can knock out the underpinnings of their comfortable existence.

  • The whole purpose of Reagan and Thatcher was to break up society so the Rich would buy up everything. like now. the poor live in the streets. the Middle Class is joining the poor slowly. the Rich are oblivious. the Game is rigged. as we know.

    Divide and Conquer and Buy and Sell at a "Profit". nothing matters but money. Belittle the poor and destroy the World's ecosystem. For a Profit. and we see how the poor are left to die out in the cold.

    Hurry up and Die is the American Health system.
    screwed from birth.

    the whole system is designed to take our money away, the Gilded Age is but a pale imitation of the Greed these Cons did. lol.

    just wait till they sign the Trans Pacific Partnership selling more of American life to Business. For a Proit.

    we do have to thank Reagan and Thatcher for setting things up." there is no such thing as Society, on ly Individuals and Government." M. Thatcher. and now Government is owned by Business. Profitable.

    the Name of the Game.

  • Just yesterday I happened on a Mike Konczal wonkblog on Universal Basic Income, pity the mammon worshipers would consider such a thing heretical. I work for a "BigBoxMart", insecurity is a regular thing.

  • Here's a wonderful (in a gruesome sort of way) article by Ian Frazier in the NY'er about the NYC homeless situation; basically it's the Coalition for the Homeless vs. the Bloomberg Administration, and it's horrifying. Partly so because of the maddening bureaucracy that forces homeless families to shuttle back and forth from service centers to homeless shelters, only to be turned away because of eligibility issues (a mother, two small kids, and two large fiber 'homeless bags' full of their stuff, and they're not 'eligible' for shelter? you gotta be kidding). Between Reagan, the Bushes, Obama, and complacent Democrats, there's so much institutional cruelty in our society it staggers me. More than that, the Republican success at demonizing tax collection ensures these poor folks are treated like garbage, even if they meet kind people at some points along the way.

    I'm going to just mention Barbara Ehrenreich's classic 'Nickeled and Dimed," because it's as timely as ever and really lays out what the poor (not the 'destitute,' merely the poor, who are THIS far away from being destitute) have to deal with.
    Link to Frazier:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/10/28/131028fa_fact_frazier

Comments are closed.