Fw: Homelessness: A Capitalist Tragedy

Bruce D. Burleson (anvil@quik.com)
Tue, 5 May 1998 17:17:37 -0400

OK Tom,. will do!  Here it is.  :)

> From: Tom Boland <wgcp@earthlink.net>
> To: Bruce D. Burleson <anvil@quik.com>
> Subject: Homelessness: A Capitalist Tragedy
> Date: Tuesday, May 05, 1998 8:16 AM
> Bruce, please consider sending your article below to <HPN@aspin.asu.edu>
> (if you haven't already done so).  It's very well written.--Tom
> -----------------------------------
> By Bruce D. Burleson
> Article published in Socialist Action, January 1998.
>         I work for a homeless shelter and housing agency here in Boston.
> For two months I worked as a counselor in one of the shelters--a place
> located, oddly enough, on an island in Boston Harbor.
>         In my brief stint there, I met a man named Jeffrey (not his real
> name).  Jeffrey was a short, round, bald middle-aged man with a quick wit
> and a spring in his step.  He also held a Ph.D in music and was a
> professional piano player.
>         Some bad things happened in Jeffrey's life.  He lost his job
> piano at a posh Boston hotel bar.  He also was fighting a drinking
> as well as depression.  To make a long story short, Jeffrey was unable to
> pay his rent, and wound up on the streets.
>         Luckily he was able to get into a shelter and get back on his
> but it was an uphill struggle.  Without a permanent address, it is
> difficult to get a decent job.  And without a job, getting a permanent
> address is an arduous task.  It's a Catch-22 situation faced by many
> I met in that shelter.
>         I know what Jeffrey was going through, because I was once
> myself.  There is nothing more frightening than finding oneself in
> Square with a carload of personal belongings and nowhere to go.
> Who are they?
>         Homeless people.  We see them every day.  In subway entrances, in
> bus stations, collecting cans from the trash, begging for spare change
> outside shopping centers.  Sometimes we take note of them, maybe give
> some change, maybe buy them a sandwich.  More often they just become part
> of the landscape, dismissed as irrelevant or eccentric by passers-by.
>         But who are these people?  Why are they there?  What's the matter
> with them anyway?  Why don't they just get a job?  These are the
> people often automatically ask about the homeless.  And they are also the
> questions left unanswered, or misleadingly answered, by the bourgeois
>         The homeless are you and me: white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, male,
> female, gay, straight, young, old, able-bodied, handicapped.  The list
> on and on, because millions of people in the United States experience
> homelessness at some point in their lives.
>         Estimates of how many homeless people there are in the United
> depend on who you ask and how the question is worded.  There are between
> 300,000 and 7 million people who have no permanent address.  The National
> Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that on any given night, 750,000
> Americans will be without shelter, and that 1.3 to 2 million Americans
> become homeless sometime during the year.
>         Boston alone has an estimated 4,600 to 6,000 homeless people.
> Indeed, at Boston shelters, the overnight population reached 120 percent
> capacity at certain points last winter.  And this winter they're
> even more people, due to government cutbacks on social programs.
>         The end of welfare as we knew it, engineered by Congress and
> into law by President Clinton, and also cutbacks in Supplementary
> Income (SSI), are sure to lead to a dramatic increase in homelessness.
>         All of these figures depend, of course, on how one defines
> homelessness.  Is it sleeping under a bridge, in a shelter, or on Aunt
> Shirley's sofa after being thrown out of the house by an angry partner?
> Is it living in a place against one's will, or living in a room at the
> YMCA?  All of these factors make it difficult to know exactly how many
> people are homeless.
>         For our purposes, let us consider homelessness to be a condition
> being without a permanent place to live and to keep one's belongings.
> Myths
>         Myths about homelessness abound.  One is the belief that most of
> homeless are mentally ill.  But, according to the National Coalition for
> Homeless (NCH), only 23 percent of homeless people are mentally ill.
>         The NCH also notes that, prior to their homelessness, most of the
> "mentally ill" homeless never needed psychiatric care of any kind.  In
> words, homelessness contributes to, but is not usually the result of,
> illness.
>         Another myth is that homelessness is caused by
> "deinstitutionalization"--the release of great numbers of the mentally
> from state-run hospitals.  The fact is, according to NCH, 65 percent of
> decline in the population of mental hospitals had already occurred by
> whereas the number of homeless has tripled since 1980.  So it is clear
> although this phenomenon may have contributed to homelessness in the
> it is not the major cause.
>         Still another myth is that most of the homeless are alcoholics or
> drug abusers.  But NCH has determined that "only about 33 percent of the
> homeless are substance abusers.  The well-off in our society go to
> for substance abuse, but the poor are treated much differently."
>         This is not to deny that sometimes conditions such as mental
> and substance abuse contribute to a person's becoming homeless.  The
> homeless who suffer from these conditions are also more likely to freeze
> death, because they're too sick to realize they're in danger.
>         The politicians and their media often blame these individuals for
> their own predicament.  There is a grain of truth in what they say.  Some
> people can pull themselves together, and often do.  But ultimately, it is
> cutbacks in social spending--engineered by the politicians--that lead to
> these deaths on the street.
>         Another misconception is that the homeless are all single "bums,"
> but families with children represent 35 percent of the homeless, and are
> the fastest growing group.
>         Other statistics about the homeless disprove the myths.  For
> example, a common myth is that homeless people are lazy.  However,
> people make up at least 30 percent of the homeless--meaning, they can
> afford food but not housing.  Moreover, many of the homeless who are
> unemployed still work hard at one thing or another, whether it be
> collecting cans for recycling, panhandling, and even publishing and
> activism.
>         Indeed, if one wants to find lazy people, the place to look is
> on the streets, but in the executive offices of corporate America!
> Homelessness and housing
>         Over the past 20 years there has been a growing shortage of
> affordable housing.  In the Boston area, for example, the end of rent
> control--a ceiling on what landlords could charge tenants for rent--has
> meant skyrocketing rents.  Recent changes in the New York City
> laws have eroded low-income housing protection there as well.
>         In cities across America, gentrification--the replacement of
> low-income housing with high-priced luxury apartments--has meant less
> affordable housing available for poor people.
>         According to NCH, between 1973 and 1993, 2.2 million low-rent
> vanished from the market, while the number of low-income renters rose by
> 4.7 million.  On top of that, only 26 percent of families that were
> eligible for housing assistance received it.
>         Not only are low-income units being lost, but housing that could
> renovated and used to house the homeless sits empty--a total waste.
> Throughout Boston's neighborhoods, one sees "triple deckers," or
> three-family houses, boarded up, with Century 21 signs out front.  Office
> buildings, old warehouses, and factories stand unused or underused, a
> in the face to homeless people.
>         In cities across the country, homeless people suffer a wide
> of abuses by the police.  They are chased off park benches, arrested for
> "vagrancy," and evicted from makeshift shanties.
>         In San Francisco, on the orders of "progressive" Mayor Willie
> Brown, police have recently used helicopters equipped with heat-seeking
> devices to round up homeless people in Golden Gate Park.  In the first 11
> months of Brown's term, 15,588 people were cited for vagrancy.  In other
> words, it's basically illegal to be without a home in that city.
>         Some cities are downright mean.  In Houston, park benches have
> redesigned with "homeless-proof" bars across them, to prevent people from
> sleeping on them.
>         Most recently, a police officer in Santa Cruz, California, gunned
> down a homeless man and then strip-searched him as he lay bleeding on the
> street.  He was refused first aid and later died from his wounds.
> Homelessness and capitalism
>         All of the so-called "causes" of homelessness that are often
> discussed are better described as contributing factors.  There has never
> been any "proof" that alcoholism, mental illness, laziness, or any other
> individual condition "causes" people to become homeless.
>         Such analyses only blame the victims of homelessness--the
> people themselves.  They are lumped together with immigrants, "welfare
> cheats," single moms, inner-city Blacks, and gays, to be blamed as
> scapegoats for the general deterioration of living conditions.
>         Capitalism, and nothing else, causes homelessness.  Under
> housing costs money.  Houses and apartments are built, sold and rented
> profit, not for human need.  As the capitalist system continues to decay,
> poverty spreads and deepens, and the most vulnerable members of society
> up on the streets.
>         Housing is a right.  A fight needs to be waged for lower rents
> more than 10 percent of a person's income).  We need an emergency program
> to build low-cost housing.  We must also defend social services such as
> welfare, food stamps, and unemployment insurance, so as to guarantee
> everyone the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.
> But in the long run, such reforms will not solve the problem.  Only the
> overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society can
> ensure that no one is ever left out in the cold.