By Jess Peacock
Last month’s edition of Street Speech marked my twelfth issue as editor of the publication, and thusly marked my year anniversary with the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). Despite the temptation to reminisce, I would rather address an issue that we rarely, if ever, discuss within the pages of Street Speech. It’s less an ‘issue’ and more a ‘question.’ And that question is: Why? Why Street Speech? Why CCH? Why the vendor program? In the richest country in the world, why do we need to exist as an organization at all? In a city that seems to have ample funds for beautification projects (such as proposed spending of nearly $300,000 for deer sculptures along theScioto Mile), why are homeless shelters here regularly overflowing? Why do we not question and rebel against economic and social structures and systems that not only do nothing to alleviate poverty and homelessness, they actually create and perpetuate the problem outright??
Several months ago I was sitting for some tattoo work when the conversation turned, as it often does in this setting, to what I did for a living. I explained to the artist my position as editor of Street Speech, and he replied, “Oh, yeah, I see them selling that on the street all the time. I never buy them, though.” I asked why, and he replied, “They’re just going to use the money for drugs and alcohol.”
You have undoubtedly heard this before with regard to giving panhandlers money (or perhaps you even echo this sentiment). I for one have heard it ad nauseam since coming to work for CCH and, in all honesty, it infuriates me every time it is ignorantly tossed out as some holier-than-thou screed for not helping or assisting those within our society who need it most.
Footnote: Street Speech vendors are not panhandlers. They are licensed through CCH who is in turn licensed and approved by the city of Columbus to commission vendors to provide Street Speech to the community for a donation. Put another way, Street Speech vendors are working. They are performing a job that, for many of them, pays the rent, feeds the kids, or in some other way helps to keep their heads above the metaphorical deep waters of homelessness and poverty.
Beyond this, however, I am always curious as to whose business it is what a vendor does with his or her profits. I would be more than a little alarmed if CCH decided that they were no longer going to pay me out of a concern that I would purchase beer with my check. How might you feel if your employer decided that they were withholding your paycheck because you were going to purchase a bottle of margarita mix? Comparatively, we as a culture glorify alcohol and overconsumption as if it were a state religion. Televised sporting events are nothing more than an unending barrage of beer commercials, we have festivals in Columbus such as Beerfest and Comfest that deify alcoholic consumption, and we have an entire region of the city designated as The Brewery District. And yet, many of us are “concerned” about homeless or formerly homeless individuals purchasing alcohol? I bring up this glaring double standard only to shed light on why I believe CCH, Street Speech and other organizations in the city that work with the homeless population, exist. You may not like my answer. You may find it offensive. You may decide to stop reading this article altogether. But here it is:
America hates the poor and the homeless.
I know this sounds extreme, and probably stands in stark contrast to everything you might think our country embodies (i.e. justice, mercy, etc.). I mean, c’mon, this is America; we’re the good guys, right? We freed the slaves (after enslaving them, of course) and took the bold step of allowing women (women of all people!) the right to vote. Hatred isn’t in our DNA, you say. However, the U.N. Human Rights committee recently denounced the United States for making homelessness a crime, went so far as to label it “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” and pointed out that said treatment of homeless individuals violates human rights treaties.
Nigel Rodley who served as the chairman of the U.N. committee, said, “I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter. The idea of criminalizing people who don’t have shelter is something that I think many of my colleagues might find as difficult as I do to even comprehend.”
In addition, Susan Fiske, a psychology professor from Princeton University, states that the prejudice and fear felt by average Americans is a direct result of the homeless population being perceived as things rather than as human beings. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the perception held by Americans is that those who are homeless have nobody but themselves to blame for their predicament.
As a result, laws are passed to combat homeless people rather than the actual problem of homelessness itself. Researcher and legal scholar Sara K. Rankin writes, “[T]hese laws seek to improve the quality of life of the housed by reducing the visibility of the homeless through incarceration or dislocation.”
Cities such as Miami, Tampa and Palo Alto have passed laws making it a crime to be homeless. In addition, many cities have even made it a crime to feed the poor. In Columbia, South Carolina, homeless individuals are removedfrom the downtown area and taken to a “shelter” on the outskirts of town where police regularly patrol to ensure those individuals removed do not return [Editor's Note: Columbia rescinded its unanimous vote over public pressure].
Other ordinances target the homeless in cities and communities all around the nation as individuals are arrested for sleeping or even sitting for too long in a public space (It’s difficult to say what the defining criteria is for sitting someplace for “too long,” but rest assured this country will not stand for loitering). The Short North Civic Association in Columbus recently held a meeting on the "loitering problem" in the area, but failed to specify if loiterers included the plethora of valet parking attendants standing around in front of restaurants, or even the throngs of people eating ice cream outside of Jeni's on any given Sunday night.
In addition, Ft. Lauderdale is attempting to pass legislation giving the police the ability to confiscate the personal belongings of homeless people provided those belongings are on public property.
Ultimately, it seems that we are less concerned with the growing issue of homelessness and more concerned with punishing those who find themselves in such dire straits in the first place. In some cases, the price for being destitute results in the ultimate punishment being paid by those who have the audacity of being poor or homeless. This past March, a homeless man inAlbuquerque was killed by police officers for the crime of illegal camping. The 38-year-old man was shot in the back, holding nothing more than a small knife.
Here in Columbus, homeless camps are sometimes dismantled and the occupants scattered to the winds as if they were pesky rodents as opposed to actual human beings. City officials tell the public that they would rather have the camp inhabitants (who often survive based on the community they form within those camps) in area shelters, but fail to share that shelters are continually overflowing and in less than ideal conditions. Street Speech has documented in past issues of the publication the convoluted and difficult process of navigating the Coordinated Point of Access (CPOA) hotline required of anyone seeking temporary shelter. And, as one homeless individual interviewed for an article on the CPOA explains, the attitude within the shelters does not necessarily differ from the attitude toward homelessness in society. “There’s an attitude a lot of the people have there, like a prison mentality, where everyone feels the need to act tough; to bully other people around,” he explained. “An attitude that homeless people are just the bottom of the barrel, worthless people.” For the homeless, it is nothing more than a damned if you do, damned if you don’t life and death Catch-22.
In an effort to secure some answers for the dismantling of various homeless camps, as well as to find out what tangible steps his administration was taking to alleviate the issue of homelessness in Columbus, I spent several months receiving the run-around from an aide in Mayor Coleman’s office. My hope was to secure an interview with the mayor for Street Speech or, at the very least, provide a series of questions in advance to be answered (undoubtedly by his aides) by email. After several communications assuring me that it would not be a problem, my inquiries simply stopped being replied to.
Footnote: With family homelessness growing in excess of sixty-fivepercent over the last three years in Franklin County, it would seem silence to inquiries might not be the best strategy by our city governance. However, it should be noted that the Columbus City Council did allot a $1.1 million grant to the Community Shelter Board for their new shelter building set to open on the west side sometime in the near future (Which, in reality, is a meager .16 percent of the overall 2013 city budget). However, temporary emergency shelter is not a replacement for affordable housing. Studies indicate that at least seventeen percent of homeless individuals are actually employed, but fail to make enough to afford permanent housing.
“Get Your Ass Moving!”
Beyond our disdain for homelessness, we as a nation are seemingly eager to dismantle any programs that, for generations, have effectively kept individuals and families out of homelessness, if not poverty. Efforts to dismantle the social safety net are being introduced at all levels of government under the banner of austerity, and while the economic recession has made nearly fifty million Americans eligible for food stamps, safety net programs such as unemployment and food stamp benefits (SNAP) are being ripped out from underneath struggling families and individuals. Rankin writes, “[H]omeless families represent one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. Children comprise approximately 23 percent of the homeless population. The majority of homeless children are under the age of 7…approximately 1 out of every 45 children in the United States experiences homelessness at some point in the year.” Faced with these numbers, our leaders see fit to cut the very programs that seek to empower and feed those who need it most.
Ironically, the Farm Bill that President Obama signed in February, which effectively cut $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next ten years, was filled with subsidies (i.e. corporate welfare) for corporations, in particular big agribusiness. In addition, every year taxpayers subsidize Wall Street banks to the tune of $83 billion, and big oil receives nearly the same amount every year with their own combined subsidies. And yet, somehow the conversation always seems to revolve around how angry we are that those freeloading homeless families or welfare recipients are receiving funds from the government to, you know, survive. Americans have seemingly bought into the myth of Reagan’s welfare queen, or even the new Fox News promoted “food stamp surfer” Jason Greenslate, the poster boy for the undeserving poor.
But what is the reality of the amount of fraud occurring within the welfare system? We’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence thrown out by those who think the “welfare state” is breaking America’s bank (despite the fact that we’re handing out hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare every year), and we all know someone who knows someone who is receiving food stamps, but man, how can they afford that iPod?? In reality, less than two percent of people on welfare in the United States commit fraud. Erin O’Brien, a poverty expert at the University of Massachusetts, states, “The myth of the Cadillac driving welfare queen who defrauds the system lingers even though there’s no proof of it.”
And the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) states, “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program, and despite the recent growth in caseloads, the share of total SNAP payments that represent overpayments, underpayments, or payments to ineligible households reached a record low in fiscal year 2011.”
Despite such lopsided systematic oppression, we as a country are bound and determined to punish those who have the audacity to be poor and/or homeless. Over half the states in the union have introduced various forms of legislation (with varying degrees of successful passage) that would seek to require welfare recipients to undergodrug testing in order to receive benefits. With the stated rationale being that such measures would effectively curb welfare fraud, various studies and concrete examples such as Florida’s drug testing program show that a) a small percentage of individuals failed their tests (two percent in the case of Florida) and b) tax payers are saved very little money. Virginia’s program would have cost $1.5 million and saved just a little over $200,000. So if rampant fraud is actually little to nonexistent, and the savings are minimal, why continue trying to pass such programs? The answer does indeed seem to be that we hate our poor and feel the need to punish them (No word on whether proponents of drug testing welfare recipients expect executives of Wall Street banks, big oil companies, and agribusiness to undergo testing for the subsidies they receive).
Politicians in our country have referred to the poor as stray animals that continually breed, as dysfunctional, as deserving of death, and radio host Rush Limbaugh (himself a former welfare recipient) has stated that people on welfare “buy Twinkies, Milk Duds, potato chips, six-packs of Bud, then headhome to watch the NFL on one of two color TVs and turn off their cell phones,and that’s poverty in the U.S.” Of course, Rush fails to mention that one cannot purchase alcohol with food stamps, but what are facts when you have a nation to divide?
In addition, five-term Hawaii Democratic state lawmaker Tom Brower stated how he was “disgusted” with homeless people, and boasted (while demonstrating for news cameras) how he takes a sledgehammer to their shopping carts, and, in his own words, “If someone is sleeping…during the day, I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving.’”
Our negative attitude toward the poor and homeless seems to be the metaphorical nose we cut off to spite our own collective face. The CBPP states, “Economists consider SNAP one of the most effective forms of economicstimulus. Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, every dollar increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Similarly, [the Congressional Budget Office] rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the two most cost-effective of all spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.” In addition, a recent report by Creative Housing Solutions found that, while homeless individuals cost the taxpayer $31,065 each year due to various expenditures absorbed by the public, if we actually took the initiative to house the homeless it would cost only $10,000 per year.
“We Choose to Have It”
The simple question has to be asked, if the United States does hate its poor and homeless, why?
One theory connects the disdain for those in poverty with the “Protestant work ethic” that is dyed into the wool of American culture. At its outset, U.S. capitalism found an ideological partner in John Calvin’s theology of predestination. This led to a philosophy of existence that clung to the notion that if one works hard, then they will be successful (or at least put food on the table). If one was poor or homeless, it was a result of either something they had done to cause it, or they simply were not working hard enough. Or, perhaps worse, god simply did not favor the individual or family living in poverty as a result of unresolved sin. However, the Protestant work ethic also guaranteed that, no matter what economic position you found yourself in, you could always choose to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. This belief is still deeply embedded in western “common” sense, despite the harrowing truth that so many people simply do not have the resources to eat, let alone thrive. As Martin Luther King said during his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
There is also a strongly held belief that the United States is a meritocracy, where your level of success is limited only by how hard you are willing to work. Both of these concepts are still blindly spouted by politicians on both sides of the ideological aisle, despite the overwhelming and devastating evidence that there are three unemployed individuals for every available job opening, or that those employed in full-time minimum wage jobs simply do not make enough to survive individually, let alone to feed a family. Nobody has time to climb the ladder to success when you’re working three jobs to feed your family. And then of course there’s always the problem of the rigged system, the illusion of economic betterment for the poor.
Chris Hayes writes in his book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, “Those who climb up the ladder [of success] will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.” And once that ladder is pulled up and the “right” people are in power, backed more and more by unlimited sums of money from increasingly shadowed corporations, institutions that were once designed to reward hard work, effort, and a bootstrap ethic become increasingly privatized and gamed by the privileged and elite. As author and reporter Matt Taibbi said in a recent interview, “[B]oth [political parties] have the same approach to poverty, to people at the bottom, and they have the same approach to enforcement. And so what begins as deregulation of Wall Street concludes, ultimately, in potentially non-enforcement of crime; and what begins as being ‘tougher’ on welfare cheats in the ’90s, and being tougher on the whole process of giving out benefits, devolves into something pretty close to the criminalization of poverty itself.” In other words, the system has been rigged. The powerful have ensconced themselves in wombs of elitism and control while those left behind become grist for the mill. There are no longer any bootstraps by which the poor can tug.
Last year, Demos released a study showing that it would cost $175billion to eliminate poverty in America. While that may seem like a considerable amount, when you consider that our defense budget is northward of $700 billion, it definitely brings the issue of American poverty into focus and puts our increasing efforts to demonize the poor into perspective. The shocking fact is that if you took the amount of corporate welfare being provided to Wall Street banks and the oil companies, you would easily cover most of the price tag required to eliminate poverty entirely.
So what’s stopping us?
Demos’ Matt Bruenig writes, “Eradicating or dramatically cutting poverty is not the deeply complicated intractable problem people make it out to be. The dollars we are talking about are minuscule up against the size of our economy. We have poverty because we choose to have it. We choose to design our distributive institutions in ways that generate poverty when we could design them in ways that don’t. Its continued existence is totally indefensible and our nation’s biggest shame.”
Unfortunately, very few of us possess the individual power to alter the structure of our distributive institutions, nor can any of us, as individuals, shatter the plutocratic and corporate controlled governance that has stolen the reigns of power here in the United States. However, we can advocate for the homeless, we can support institutions working for the betterment of those in poverty, and we can speak out when we hear the tired tropes, the vilification of the poor and homeless.
“Like I’m Trash”
So, back to the original question: Why Street Speech? The obvious answer is that we provide a source of employment and income for many individuals who have a difficult time finding work elsewhere. We as a people like to think that America is fair and just, and if you’re knocked down, well, this country provides you every opportunity to get back up. Unfortunately that is simply not the case for many of our vendors. Labyrinthine housing bureaucracy, an ex-offender status, medical issues, the need for childcare, massive shelter wait lists, personal biases held by a potential employer, lack of resources for clothing or personal hygiene products, a proper toilet, or even how a vendor who is working is treated on the street.
“When I’m out getting donations for Street Speech, people walk by and look at me like I’m trash or no good,” says vendor Randy Jones. “I wish they could just walk in my shoes for one day. Then they would know what I go through.”
All of these factors snowball into insurmountable systematic walls that prevent many individuals from finding “traditional” employment and pulling themselves out of homelessness.
In addition, Street Speech serves as a disruptive agent, a voice (small as it might be) crying out for change in Columbus. A voice that asks questions such as, while it’s great that the Community Shelter Board is building a larger shelter building, should we not address the issues and systemic causes surrounding why we even NEED shelters in the first place? Or how does the gentrification process that is taking place in the lower socioeconomic communities of Columbus serve as a major catalyst when it comes to local homelessness and poverty? Or why does Columbus have a $50 million “rainy day” fund when we have individuals and families sleeping in their cars and under bridges no matter what the weather is?
Do we hate our homeless, our poor? I will leave that for you to judge. Perhaps Mayor Coleman will sit down with Street Speech at some point and conduct that interview we were promised a year ago and answer some of these questions. Until then, we will advocate for those in poverty and for those who are homeless. We will continue to provide an opportunity for our vendors to earn an income. We will continue to ask the questions that need to be asked, even if nobody wants to answer them. And maybe, just maybe, if enough people start asking the same questions, if enough people start to see the homeless as individual human beings versus members of a conspiracy to live off the dole, perhaps change will come.