Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The social invisibility of homelessness

I spent some time trying to track down a quote by G. K. Chesterton. Having failed, I'll simply paraphrase it: "Only in England do we engage in the humorous pastime of jailing the homeless for not troubling to sleep in their own beds."

In America, we don't jail the homeless. That would deprive us of space we need to incarcerate accused criminals. But they are an eyesore, so we plant concrete spikes here and there to prevent them from sleeping someplace where people might see them and think badly of us. Oh, there are a few places they're planted because sleeping there might be dangerous — at least, more dangerous than is usual for them — but there are others where they're planted because they're more attractive than the human detritus who would otherwise occupy the space. 

Oh, and we make it illegal to water down the effectiveness of government programs by being thoughtful and generous. 'Murka! ("Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom does not consist of doing what we want but of having the right to do what we ought."—St. John Paul II.)

In the late Douglas Adams' novel Life, the Universe and Everything, the protagonist and his companions travel in a spaceship which, for reasons that become even more bizarre as they're explained, resembles "an upended Italian bistro". However, while the ship is resting on the pitch at Lord's Cricket Grounds in London, almost nobody notices it. It's not physically invisible; there's no "cloaking device" à la Star Trek that bends background light around the ship. Rather, it's socially invisible; it has an "SEP field" which plays upon the human tendency to ignore disturbing and incongruous sights.

"SEP" stands for "Somebody Else's Problem". Like homelessness.

One place where spikes aren't inhumane.
Up in Denver and other Colorado cities, people have done the math and figured out that it would cost taxpayers less in healthcare expenses over the long run to build apartment complexes for the homeless and provide them with resident case workers. (Yeah, but what else can you expect from a buncha pot-smokin' hippie libruls? We're 'Murkins!) It may take some time before we truly know the effectiveness of this approach. At the very least, though, it's more humane than expecting Somebody Else to take up the slack with a private charity.

Government programs may be Inefficiency Personified, a Platonic Idea of Hot Mess. But I believe (once again quoting GKC) that "if it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly." And they tend to be better when the government administering is local, rather than state or national. Programs run by local governments according to their own needs better fulfill the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity (nothing should be done at a higher organizational level that is better or more appropriately done at a lower level).

"Yeah," one person objected, "but what's to stop me from quitting my job and letting the bank foreclose on my house so I can get a free apartment?" Well, the apartments aren't free; they're heavily subsidized but not completely gratis. Other than that ... nothing. In fact, I double dog-dare anyone: Go ahead, quit your job and do whatever else you need to in order to qualify for one of those apartments. Then come back and tell us all how the poor people are living the life of Riley off the gullible soft-heartedness of us wage slaves. I'm interested to see what would be the first to go — your pride or your self-righteousness.

(As everyone should know, the "double dog-dare" is the highest superlative of the dare; it can't be trumped, ignored or turned back on the daring party who issued it. You either do it or you're a chicken. Buck-CAW!)

In truth, I don't think people put spikes in various places because they don't want the homeless causing property values to go down. Rather, they put the spikes up because the homeless are a goad to the conscience and a judgment on the rich.

The Law of Moses has several mitzvoth requiring acts of charity to the widowed, the orphaned and the "sojourner" (ex. Deuteronomy 24:17-22), and threatens retribution against one who oppresses them (Exodus 22:21-24). Isaiah declared to the "house of Jacob" the voice of God:

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. ... Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:4, 6-8).

And in the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus established his solidarity with the poor, promising the kingdom of Heaven for those who "welcomed the stranger" and "the eternal fire" for those who did not. To give shelter to the homeless is to give shelter to the Lord, the "Son of Man [who had] no place to lay his head" (Luke 9:28). We know this; 'Murkins are a Christian people, by Gawd! 

And so we show our love for one another by blaming the homeless for their own predicament, comparing taxes to theft, and demanding the homeless sleep someplace where we can't see them. Keep 'Murka Beautiful! At least, in the rich parts of town!

"I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent." (Revelation 3:15-19)