It would appear that homelessness is a major political issue in San Francisco right now, judging from the articles I’ve been reading in the Chronicle. It also seems to be an issue up here; I noticed that Harvest has smarmy self righteous notes about “care not cash” up, despite the monumental failure of the program of the same name in San Francisco. The politicization of homelessness is really tragic, in my opinion, because it obscures the human issue, and homelessness is about human beings. Human beings who have nowhere to live. And that’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me.
Now, I’ve been to a lot of places around the world, and I have seen the full spectrum of homelessness, from spoiled rich kids slumming it for a few months to monks who take vows of poverty and homelessness as part of their religious service. And I have never seen homelessness anywhere in the world which even begins to rival the homelessness in the United States. Our homeless are filthy, mentally ill, and deeply disturbing; and yet our response is to penalize them? How, exactly, does this make sense?
Let’s be clear about something here: for most people, homelessness is not a choice. There are a select few individuals who have chosen a roaming lifestyle, but most people are homeless because of events which spun out of their control; maybe they lost their jobs, their health, their support network, what have you. Many of the homeless in this country are mentally ill, which can surprise people who live in more civilized nations where the mentally ill are cared for, rather than ignored and left to die on the streets.
Some homeless people struggle with substance abuse, addiction, and other issues. This does not make them any less deserving of charity and assistance, because let me remind you, my friends, that there but for the grace of Pete go you. Do you think that addicts wake up one morning and say “I think I will become addicted to shooting up, because that sounds like fun”? No, they don’t. Addicts get caught up in a spiraling cycle of complex factors, ranging from being made fun of on the playground to being constantly exposed to that kind of lifestyle. It is not for me to criticize an alcoholic or an addict; instead I should offer a friendly hand.
Americans seem more bent on sweeping the homeless away than any other society, which is remarkable in a supposedly Christian nation. One of the major precepts of Christianity is charity, but we seem to have forgotten that. In some countries, the homeless almost provide a service, by allowing people to perform acts of charity, which are fundamental parts of religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Dictating the way in which people should live is not charity. Offering help when it is needed is charity.
Harvest does not get to decide how the homeless people who panhandle outside their grocery store should live. Harvest wants us to give them money so that they can handle the homeless “issue” because they want to erase the homeless, since the homeless are bad for business. Likewise, the City of San Francisco is ticketing the homeless and rounding them up in sweeps which seem eerily like pogroms because people are complaining, because it’s an election year, because someone in government wants to look good.
Dealing with the homeless is hard. Living in San Francisco, I passed panhandlers and people in horrible situations on a daily basis. But I would have been very disturbed if they had all disappeared one day, given the way in which inequality has suffused our society. When the homeless disappear in America, be suspicious, because the reason for the disappearance will probably not be nice, or even benign. Homeless people are beaten to death, burned alive, and subjected to other forms of torture because people don’t think of them as human beings; this is a profound injustice, and it makes my hackles rise.
Why are we, as a society, tolerating persecution of the homeless? Is it because we forget our morals when its convenient?