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From the War on Poverty to the War on the Poor

George Salamon
December 9, 2014

by George Salamon

“Allow us to sing a song for the Homeless/ For Life today is cold and grey and ghastly/ And living it is punishment enough.” —Bertolt Brecht

meek-begging-for-change-320ANOTHER EARLY DECEMBER DAY WILL LIVE IN INFAMY. On December 4th, the most famous encampment in America for homeless people, “the Jungle,” was shut down in San Jose. The reporter for the San Jose Mercury News saw, as the bulldozers moved in and the displaced trudged out, “a caravan of misery” lining “the sidewalk along Story Road. Evicted homeless people stood beside a seemingly endless row of shopping carts filled with their meager possessions as they watched city workers descend into ‘the Jungle’ Thursday and begin dismantling the country’s most infamous encampment.”

The culture of homelessness smashed in San Jose’s Jungle is less “infamous” than its destruction, which does not wipe out homelessness itself, but merely atomizes it into smaller and less visible pockets. “This is my home... now I’ll have to lie down on the street, somewhere outside,” the displaced Eva Martinez said. She’ll join five thousand others lying down nightly on the streets of the city that boasts the highest disposable per capita income of any American city with more than fifty thousand residents.

America would like to be cured of homelessness as it was of polio. It prefers to view the homeless as diseased betrayers of the American way, as the anti-Self-Made-Man, as the Self-Destructive Man. Americans don’t hear the voice of a homeless woman who told an interviewer from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty: “The men and women out here, they don’t want to be homeless. I don’t know a single soul who wants to be homeless. I don’t care how broken down you are, not one person out there in the streets wants to be homeless. And to be penalized for being homeless? That’s ludicrous. We’re already being penalized. You got to go to the back of the bus, you can’t come into certain restaurants, you can’t go to the bathroom, and you can’t do this without buying something... it’s already a system that needs a lot of work.”

homelessTHE MEN AND WOMEN WHO PROVIDE SERVICES FOR THE POOR, and the volunteers from religious institutions, do splendid work in so many places, but the system that has steadily shoved more and more of the unluckiest poor into homelessness remains unmoved. The consequences were predicted by Barbara Ehrenreich: “Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we’re all eventually headed — the 99 percent, or at least the 70 percent of us, every debt-loaded college grad, out-of-work school teacher, and impoverished senior...”

It was a pleasant surprise to see her prescient observation echoed in the latest report on homelessness that briefly attracted media attention, “America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report on Child Homelessness.” But most stories did not engage with one of the report’s conclusions, the one suggesting that unless we address family and child homelessness and the conditions that have increased them, we are headed toward a “permanent Third World in America.”

The report attracted media attention because it put the number of homeless children in America in 2013 at 2.5 million, or one of every 30 children, up from 1.6 million, or one of 45, from the previous report in 2010. The report received coverage in our major dailies and from the UK’s Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Stories left unexamined the report’s observation that family and child homelessness surfaced in the mid-1980s as a “significant social pattern”and did not ask: Why then? And, what before or since then? When it comes to poverty and homelessness, “doing the numbers” is not enough to propel us to understand either one.

[caption id=“attachment_34211” align=“alignleft” width=“300”]Central Park, New York Hooverville Central Park, New York Hooverville[/caption]

AMERICANS WERE ACQUAINTED WITH POVERTY AND HOMELESSNESS long before we discovered them again, in the 1980s. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, homeless families and individuals lived in encampments from coast to coast, in tent cities, in shanties made from cardboard or tar paper, often for years. These shanty towns, called Hoovervilles after the president held responsible for the Depression, developed their own culture, their social norms outside society. The one in St. Louis built its own churches and elected its own mayor and stood from 1930 to 1936. Middle-class Americans expressed much sympathy for the inhabitants in the Hoovervilles, mouthing “there but for the grace of God go I.” The war put an end to all that, and in the “prosperity for all” and suburbanization bubble of the 1950s into the 1960s, poverty and homelessness were hidden — until, of course, they were discovered, most famously in Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1961).

Two American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, took first-hand looks at poverty, urban and rural, and responded with the Food Stamp Act and the War on Poverty, which included the Economic Opportunity Act and the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid. Despite such measures, the “other America” never went away — and mainstream attitudes toward it began to change in the 1970s. In 1973, President Nixon ordered the dismantling of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Then came Ronald Reagan. During his presidency, the poor and homeless shared the experience of a woman evicted from the Jungle in San Jose: “Further down Story Road a woman leaving the encampment wailed angrily. ‘Somebody help me,’ she shouted. No one responded to her request.”

Reagan’s America witnessed an explosion of homelessness. Once the “Great Communicator” entered the White House, homelessness was rarely noticed or written about, and when he departed, more than two million Americans were homeless, while the number living in poverty had risen from 24.5 million in 1978 to 32.5 million in 1988. By the end of Reagan’s administration, federally funded programs had been cut substantially, training and legal services for the poor had been slashed, funds for public transportation had been reduced — and, as Peter Dreier wrote in 2004, “the most dramatic cut in domestic spending... was for low-income housing subsidies... In his first year in office Reagan halved the budget for public housing (and Section 8 housing) to about $17.7 billion... In the next few years he sought to eliminate federal housing assistance to the poor altogether.”

Dreier proposed, tongue partly in cheek, that “a fitting tribute to his legacy would be for each American city to name a park bench where at least one homeless person sleeps every night in honor of our 40th president.” Dreier’s article was headlined “Reagan’s Legacy: Homelessness in America” — but even more disturbing was the legacy of Reagan’s legacy: “Funding for low-income housing, legal services, job training and other programs has never been returned to pre-Reagan levels...” Reagan’s legacy became the guide for public policy and the face of popular attitudes toward the poor and homeless. The empathy of FDR was dead — long live the coldness of RR!

Like-what-youre-readingTHE MEDIA’S SECOND DISCOVERY of the swelling ranks of the homeless in the 1980s ushered in the leap from two decades of the war on poverty to decades of the ongoing war on the poor. Typical is the lead-in to a 1988 cover story in Insight magazine: “Much is said about the pathos of the homeless. Even so, some of the fundamental facts are missing. How many are there? Answers are speculative and vulnerable to exaggeration. The actual number may be but a fraction of the 2 million to 3 million commonly heard. The absence of reliable data can thwart efforts to address their varied and sometimes painful situations. They seem to be everywhere.”

Well, those bleeding-heart liberals tend to “exaggerate” the troubles of minorities and women, of the poor and the lazy, of the addicts and alcoholics who have the khutspe to “be everywhere.” But since the situations of those among them out in the streets are “varied” and only “sometimes painful,” care must be taken to estimate just how many of them there are how they ended up where they are. Reports on the homeless since then contain warnings: “Definitional quandaries have long plagued discussions of American homelessness.” ... “There is no standard or uniform definition among researchers or policy makers.” ... “Counting the homeless is fraught with methodological challenges.” ... “It is wise to avoid the numbers game...”

So let us do that and say about the homelessness what a wise justice once said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And many of us cannot forget what we’ve seen. For me, years ago, the throwaway kids at a San Diego storefront shelter, wolfing down tacos prepared for them by a church group and falling asleep on cots while hugging stuffed animals. They could stay at the shelter for two weeks, and then return to the streets to deal with drug abusers, lousy nutrition, sexual exploitation, violence, and the stress of surviving. They would become, as the report observes, both victimizers and victims.

HOMELESSNESS TODAY HAS NEW FACES, those of people driven into the streets not by alcohol or drug abuse or tossed out of hospitals. Representative of those in the recent report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on homeless families is Mrs. D, in St. Louis:

Since 2007, homelessness has been a way of life for Mrs. D. and her two daughters, ages 3 and 8. The family has been in and out of tent encampments and shelters, and has found temporary housing in an extended stay hotel provided by the city. The 29-year-old single mom is unemployed and suffers from depression. The three survive on food stamps with no support from the girls’ father. Mrs. D. completed ninth grade and wants to work toward a GED, but she’s hopeful that her children can get the education that she didn’t. She would like to receive educational toys and clothes for her children for Christmas.

Among those who fell into the streets from a middle-class existence is a man who “was laid off from a job which I had had for several years” and whose “house burned down... What I realized was that my skills had in fact become less relevant and I wasn’t all that employable... I had 20th century work skills... I was a purchasing agent... The world’s changed. Anyone with an apartment number and an internet connection can basically find what they need. It’s just not relevant anymore. I didn’t have a relevant, marketable skill.”

We know what would help both, but what many of them face before they drop into the streets is eviction, or displacement, and criminalization of their behavior to survive once they are homeless. Ben Terrall summarized the dire findings of a new book, Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco’s Housing Wars, by James Tracy:

In San Francisco’s current onslaught of real estate speculation, any resident of the city who isn’t rich and doesn’t own their dwelling can be forgiven for feeling nervous about their future housing. Two thousand tenants were evicted last year, and many more moved out of town because of the likelihood of eviction. Entire city blocks have been razed to house the new elite of corporate casual Silicon Valley commuters.

Similar gentrification has eaten up poor neighborhoods in other cities, so much so that “In 2014... there is no state in the United States where a typical low-income worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment.”

Matthew Desmond, a sociology professor at Harvard who studies the lives of poor people, has learned that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

Once pauperism has forced families and individuals into the streets, they receive not the empathy Hoovervilles’ residents felt, but the threat of being punished for doing what they have to do to survive. In a survey of 184 American cities, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that 53 percent prohibit sitting down or lying down in certain public places; 33 percent prohibit “loitering;” 43 percent prohibit sleeping in vehicles (in Palo Alto it can earn you a $1,000 fine or six months in jail). In seventeen cities, ordinances were passed allowing the police to sweep through places where the homeless store their belongings and seize them.

“The officer told us we were too late,” Alphonsus Williams recalled after such a sweep through hedges where his possessions were hidden. “They took my wife’s wheelchair, her medicines, and our wedding pictures.” And in seventeen cities, individuals and private organizations are prohibited from sharing food with homeless people.

Those who passed the ordinances might be reminded that “the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to the needy in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Instead, the poor have been given the back of the hand for the last three decades. The war on the poor has been won by the rich; the war on poverty is now mocked.

HYMAN BOOKBINDER (1916-2011), Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee and executive officer on President Johnson’s Task Force on Poverty, said in 1989: “Today, the ranks of the poor are swelling. These and other statistics have led careless observers to conclude that the war on poverty failed. No, it has achieved many good results. Society has failed. It tired of the war too soon, gave inadequate resources and did not open up new fronts... Large-scale homelessness, an explosion of teenage pregnancies. And single-parent households, rampant illiteracy, drugs and crime — these have been the results and the causes of persistent poverty.”

Three decades of war on the poor have empowered the causes and exacerbated the results. So here we are, in a “society divided between the hungry and the overfed, the hopeless and the have-it-alls,” as Barbara Ehrenreich put it in 1986. She was hoping for a “potent political alternative” that provides an outlet “for the frustrations of the declining middle class and the desperation of those at the bottom.”

I’d love to hear the rumblings of that political alternative approaching.

George Salamon taught German language and literature at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth, and Smith colleges. He served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. Salamon has published a study of the German-Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig and a reader in German history. He has written regularly for the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News, and Jewish Currents.