By Doug Porter
They’ll say it’s the smell of excrement. Or the public intoxication. Or the aggressive panhandling. Or the intrusion on their public or private space.
People hate what they don’t understand. Lots of people translate their repulsion in hate.
Homeless people on the street are a stark reminder of the failure that could be lurking around the next corner in life. And in order to get along in life, the rest of us have to deny the possibility of becoming one of ‘them.’
All homeless people apparently lived great lives until they somehow fucked it up and ended up homeless. And “we” are better than that. Or so we think.
Don’t Feed the Bums
I was confronted with the intensity of the loathing back in 2010 when OB Rag editor Frank Gormlie posted a story about an anti-homeless sticker and merchandise being sold in an Ocean Beach headshop.
“Welcome to Ocean Beach Don’t Feed the Bums” was the message being conveyed, a take off on signs posted urging people not to feed wildlife. Frank’s story, along with his call for a boycott of the store peddling the message, got picked up on media nationwide.
A snip posted at the OB Rag on June 21, 2010:
Homelessness is a social issue and we have a social responsibility to deal with it. We should be aiming our proverbial guns at City Hall about all of this, and not toward each other, and not at the homeless.
One of our concerns is that the hatred, the vitriol against the homeless, is being legitimized. Being down on the homeless while not being down on homelessness, is now okay. We fear this could lead to violence against the homeless. In fact, one homeless commenter to our blog talked about a rise in assaults against homeless here in OB.
Is the sticker something we are proud about enough to show our children? Is this how we handle problems like adults? Does the anti-homeless sticker represent a grown-up way of doing things? Will our children now feel it’s okay to speak smack against homeless people? Or despise them?
We got our answer to those questions a few days later, as a dozen or so of us showed up to run a picket line.
Here’s snip of my account:
There were television trucks lined up along the street and I spotted OB Rag editor Frank Gormlie, dressed in a suit (!) surrounded by an angry, jeering mob. For a few moments I feared for his safety, as the level of anger in the air reached a fevered pitch. Things were clearly getting out hand. The crowd was getting aggressive, pushing him around and trying to silence him. There wasn’t any real dialogue going on–just yelling, with lots of words, gestures and pure loathing. It was evil, unmitigated hatred, garnished with a healthy dollop of vile.
The arrival of the San Diego Police and an (late like I was—hey, it’s OB, nothing starts on time) influx of other people protesting the Black’s sale of these stickers, lowered the level of anger to a barely tolerable level. To be sure, there were individuals in the crowd who continued to try to force physical confrontations, especially one young man who seemed hell-bent on picking a fight. He made it his personal crusade—non-stop for two hours—to personally insult, curse and harass every person who showed up to walk that picket line. At one point a woman came to me in tears, after he called her a “worthless piece of shit” and other things much less printable.
I met Ernie McCray that day. Here was his take:
I spent the next two hours wondering if I was in the Twilight Zone as I held up a sign upon which I had written “Children are Watching! Show them OB’s Loving Heart (symbol)” while all around me there were people supporting The Black’s “First Amendment Rights.”
Their chests were puffed out like bantam roosters or boxers staring each other down in the middle of the ring before a hyped up championship fight. I saw people’s fists clenched as though hungry gremlins were coming to take a bite out of their loins. Venomous words flew from mouths like fighter planes taking off from the USS Midway to bomb anyone who would dare stand up for “bums” and we were asked nonsensical “bum” questions that morphed into one big:
“Would you like it if your grandma was mugged by a bum with a knife or if you had a bum urinate and defecate on your hydrangeas or camped out or passed out or shot up or had sex in your yard or begged you for money or blocked your way every time you wanted to walk down the street or showed your children that it’s okay to expect a handout without working?”
What was scary is that they asked these questions as if they actually expected “Yes” as an answer, as though because you’re standing there protesting the insensitivity of a respected business, that you support such negative depressing scenes as they had outlined in their questions.
Fast forward six years and the homeless problem is still with us. The attitudes on display for all to see that day are now largely confined to semi-anonymous internet commenters.
The Ocean Beach Troll Bashers, a closed group on Facebook with 274 members, provides a safe space for some people with small minds and foul mouths to boast of their superiority. They came to my attention during the city-wide hunt for the man accussed of killing homeless men last month.
I “joined” this closed group for few days, following up on a reader tip. Mostly it’s about white people who feel entitled/superior and use the space to vent their “feelings” about the less fortunate. There are lots of videos making fun of drunks and tweakers caught in the act of being drunks and tweakers.
There are the occasional Alex Jones conspiracy videos and lots of trash talk. And then there are the boasts about running off or getting rid of “trolls,” which generally seem to be the homeless population.
Here’s how they describe themselves: “A group where people can hate talk about the troll population and the ever growing crime rate of Ocean Beach.”
I doubt that many people “hanging out” in this sort of group realize just how offensive it is. I don’t think for a minute that most of the people involved would actually physically hurt somebody, no matter how superior they felt. But I do I think it might be a good place for authorities to look around for the sociopath looking for a little re-enforcement among the 250+ followers of the group.
Most hate crimes/violent acts against specific types of victims are committed not by organized hate groups, but by individual citizens who harbor a strong resentment against a certain group of people.
Some are “mission offenders,” who believe they are on a mission to cleanse the world of a particular evil. Others are “scapegoat offenders,” who violently act out their resentment toward the perceived growing economic power of a particular racial or ethnic group. Still others are “thrill seekers,” those who take advantage of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group in order to satisfy their own pleasures.
From the No Safe Place report issued last month by the National Coalition for the Homeless
Victims of homeless hate crimes are most commonly middle-aged men. Between 1999 and 2014, on average, 72% of the victims were over the age of 40, and 34% were between the ages of 40 and 50. In 2014, 34% of victims were between the ages of 40 and 50, and 38% were over 50 years old. In 2015, 62% of victims were over 40. However, the ages of some victims documented in this report aren‘t reported. In 2014, 81% of victims were male, while in 2015, 77% were male.
Human Beings as Collateral Damage
The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population are senior citizens. The hotels and flophouses where many of them used to disappear to live out their lives in quiet desperation have been torn down. Facilities housing substance abusers and people with severe mental illness have been privatized or shuttered. Pensions are going the way of the dinosaur. Social security can’t keep up, especially with the caps on contributions in place.
Over the past forty years or so the ascendance of a neoliberal economics has made the abnormal (dumping people on the street) seem mysterious. There is no mystery to it: homelessness is collateral damage along the road to oligarchy.
As George Monbiot said in The Guardian:
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
The San Diego Angle
Let me give just one example of how this plays out in San Diego. A (flawed) plan to fund low-income housing in San Diego gets called a “jobs tax” and local developers blackmail the city council into deep-sixing it.
Their solution? A promise to help craft a plan to solve a problem that’s been declared a public emergency for more than a decade. Anybody want to guess how much low-income housing that promise will get built? How about zero?
Now the fashionable claim being made by the developer set is that government mandated standards for new construction make low-income housing a non-starter. What they don’t tell you is that what they’re looking to pass off those expenses to the taxpayers. The need for sewers, roads, and supportive infrastructure does not go away when developer fees get cut.
Or worse, maybe they’d like to skip over the rules about electrical and fire safety. Or pay people so little money to work for builders that government assistance is necessary for their families to survive.
While people are understandably angry/concerned/distressed over the ever-growing homeless population, the first step in fixing this problem is acknowledging its cause.
The cause is modern day economic orthodoxy causing inequality, corroding democracy, and ruining the environment.
The cause is not alcoholism, mental illness, people moving to a warm climate to mooch off the government, or laziness. People with limited resources can no longer afford housing. How they get to the point of being homeless is not the issue.
It’s a whole lot easier to hate on some semi-helpless human than it is to say ‘No More’ to the guys who’ve been held up as the paragons of virtue.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: getting mad/hating people is a non-starter as a solution. Getting organized and standing up collectively does work. Homeless humans are not inherently criminals, yet city policy is to treat them that way.
The really bizarre part of this dilemma is that, as I learned a few years back in Ocean Beach, the people most susceptible to this blind anger towards the dispossessed are frequently the ones most in danger of someday joining them.
Here are some closing thoughts from uber-capitalist Nick Hanauer (who gets it), writing about the fight to increase the minimum wage. I find his comments very relevant to this situation.
Inclusive economies always outperform and outlast plutocracies. That’s why investments in the middle class work, and tax breaks for the rich don’t. The oldest and most important conflict in human societies is the battle over the concentration of wealth and power.
Those at the top will forever tell those at the bottom that our respective positions are righteous and good for all. Historically we called that divine right. Today we have trickle-down economics.
The trickle-down explanation for economic growth holds that the richer the rich get, the better our economy does. But it also clearly implies that if the poor get poorer, that must be good for our economy. Nonsense.
Some of the people who benefit most from that explanation are desperate for you to believe this is the only way a capitalist economy can work. At the end of the day, raising the minimum wage to $15 isn’t about just rejecting their version of capitalism. It’s about replacing it with one that works for every American.
On This Day: 1896 – The Klondike gold rush was set off by George Carmack discovering gold on Rabbit Creek in Alaska. 1918 – IWW War Trials began in Chicago, 95 wobblies went to prison for up to 20 years. 1998 – Carlos Santana received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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