By Jeeni Criscenzo
According to the survey in the 2018 Point-in-Time Count (PITC) of homeless people in San Diego County, the four main reasons for becoming homeless are: Loss of Job; Money Issues; Cost of Housing, and Other. Abuse/Violence ranks lowest. But this survey is missing input from thousands of families, as I explained in my prior column, so in reality, fleeing from domestic violence could be a major cause of homelessness. So too could deportation of the primary breadwinner be a factor, which is not even listed as an option, but is a contributing factor for some homeless families.
Underlying those four highest causes are specific failings in our current economic system, such as: jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the basics; lack of reasonable family planning; unsustainable rent increases; lack of affordable housing for people with extremely low incomes; social safety nets that are cut off as soon as a family starts to get on their feet, leaving them worse off; a broken health care system, and racism that sets young blacks and Latinos up for failure.
I’ve been told, “Don’t go there,” when I suggest that homelessness is a symptom of an economic system struggling to stay alive. But if we can’t be honest about the systemic causes of homelessness, we are doomed to be the archetypal dog chasing its tail. It’s my opinion that homelessness has a symbiotic relationship with unchecked capitalism – both being a result of it and serving to sustain it. The “tell” in this game is the recent escalation of the criminalization of homelessness.
While not necessarily deliberate, the debasing of homeless people benefits a system that is threatened by people who, voluntarily or not, opt out of it. This could account for the glacial response to any efforts to actually help people who are without housing, such as seen here in San Diego in response to efforts to build sleeping cabin communities for homeless women and children. It seems that perpetuating the “disgust factor” toward those who are homeless, helps to support a system that requires the masses to forego their inclinations to be part of a cooperative community that nurtures the common good, in order to participate in obsessively building wealth for the chosen few.
The threat of becoming homeless has become the new bogeyman to keep potential anti-capitalists in check. The state of being homeless has become so appalling that being branded a communist or “libtard” pales in comparison. The threat is vividly there – if you don’t willingly comply with what may seem to be your own enslavement, your punishment will be worse than going to prison, and a lot easier to inflict – you will end up homeless and every effort to pull yourself out will be thwarted. There is no need to arrest people and have a trial and judge and jury for this offense. Your boss, your landlord, your creditors, even your teacher, can convict you and condemn you to a life sentence of hopelessness, being unloved and exiled from society.
For homelessness to be an effective threat, it must be visibly horrible. People who end up homeless whether or not it is their fault, are used as examples of the dreadfulness of the condition. For this reason, acts of compassion toward homeless people are mocked and those who extend basic human kindness to homeless people are labeled suckers. Nothing can be permitted to diminish the awfulness of being homeless.
Historically, social shunning has proven to be a powerful incentive to conformity. The outrage we see in neighborhoods opposed to locating homeless services and housing in their community is a 21st-century manifestation of shunning. There is no need for a judicial system to impose the sentence when middle-class neighbors, already harboring deep resentment for the sacrifices they have made to avoid homelessness, are more than eager to administer the punishment. People who would never think of getting involved in politics or activism, suddenly become NIMBY zealots when it comes to keeping homeless people out of their community. That’s how repulsive homeless people have become.
Little do these angry neighbors realize that an unplanned personal or public calamity is a more likely threat to their home values and lifestyle than an apartment complex of subsidized housing on their street. Tragedy they can’t control hangs like an invisible albatross around their necks. Natural disasters, catastrophic illness, a sudden accident, the death of a loved one or stock market collapse, could wipe out their perfectly manicured future plans. Exorbitant college and housing costs are immobilizing the generational upward mobility, that was once considered an American birthright. Students of middle-income families must go deep into debt in order to earn the degree that gives them permission to work, but no longer guarantees the job necessary to recoup their investment.
Still, it’s that threat of homelessness that keeps most people grateful for their indentured servitude. Voluntary enslavement begins with student debt, but it is locked-in with parenthood. Because birth control makes it possible to postpone the responsibilities of parenthood, the system works to suppress access to all forms of family planning, particularly for the lower class. Once a person has the responsibility of children, they are compelled to follow the rules imposed by capitalism. A single person can resist climbing aboard the hamster wheel, but a parent will accept any job, go into debt, endure abuse and sacrifice their dreams, just to keep their family safe. The system has tapped into the very core of our survival of our species instincts to keep us willingly ensnared.
Deviate and you are doomed! Miss a credit payment and there’s a ding on that sacred, capitalist indicator of your worth, your FICO score Resulting in exorbitant interest rates, no longer limited by usury regulations. Your ability to secure a mortgage or car loan or even a rental is snatched away.
Unfettered by controls, a rental you could once afford, now requires taking on a second or third job. You consider yourself lucky if one of those jobs offers health insurance. If the stress makes you sick, or a spouse or child becomes seriously ill, only the “covered” will survive physically and financially. It seems to make no sense at all to tie your health insurance to your employment unless you consider how that keeps people working at a job they hate, particularly if they or a family member has a pre-existing condition.
No matter the reason, if you miss a rent payment, you are evicted. If you get behind on your mortgage, you are foreclosed. An eviction or foreclosure not only takes away your shelter, it also becomes a permanent scar on your credit history, affecting your ability to replace your housing. For a few bucks, anyone can check your background and use that information to deny you access to anything.
One of the tenets of capitalism is that scarcity increases value. Creating an artificial scarcity of goods can increase profits. It’s just good business and that is fine when you are talking about diamonds. But by deliberately creating a housing scarcity, capitalism has commodified a basic human necessity. Even if a person manages to avoid eviction and finds housing they can afford, there are often insurmountable barriers to actually securing it.
If their FICO score is less than stellar, they could need up to two months of rent for a security deposit, plus first and last month rent, and maybe a pet deposit. Even if they left their prior rental unit in excellent condition, their landlord could still legally wait up to 21 days after they have vacated the premises to refund their security deposit. Meanwhile, considering that financial problems, such as a loss of a job or medical expenses are often the reason for a change of housing, most renters will have already depleted whatever savings they might have squirreled away. That initial cost of getting into a rental could be well over several months of income for many families.
What may have started out to be only a short period of time without housing, perhaps covered with couch surfing or sleeping in a car, can extend to months or years. Part of the reason is that living without a home is expensive. If there is a car, it can be used to sleep in until the repo guy tows it, or it is impounded for unpaid citations because it’s illegal to sleep in your car. It’s also illegal to sleep in a public place, so repeated citations for living on the sidewalk will end up with a warrant for your arrest and jail-time. The few precious belongings you may have, will soon be stolen by thieves or impounded by law enforcement, whom you quickly learn are not your friends. Whatever furnishings you may have salvaged, could be stored for a while, but the cost of a storage unit soon becomes too much. It’s impossible to cook a meal on the street and healthy prepared food is expensive, so most homeless people rely on the high carb and fat meals distributed by good Samaritans and faith-based services.
You can “hold” defecating or urinating for just so long. At some point, you “gotta go.” Denying people access to restrooms and showers adds to the disgust factor in addition to being humiliating and threatening public health and putting men at risk of arrest for indecent exposure.
The trauma of losing everything, of being treated like vermin, of never getting enough sleep, of not eating healthy, not being able to relieve oneself when nature calls, not being able to bathe, losing teeth, of never feeling safe, never having privacy, always being afraid of being assaulted or arrested… it destroys the psyche. People who did not have previous problems with substance abuse will turn to the only escape from their misery they can find, cheap booze and drugs.
Because faith-based organizations often fill the void left by the lack of political will to help homeless people, it is not uncommon for homeless people to submit to religious proselytization for access to food and shelter. They are assured that if they only adhere to man-made laws, equated with the will of a judgmental deity, their lives will turn around. Guilt is added to the pile of misery they carry every day.
Meanwhile, NIMBY people, still safely housed with their granite kitchen counter-tops, wall-size TVs and three-car garages packed with junk, will use that same religiosity to expound that their success is the result of their own hard work. “God helps those who help themselves,” they say! They equate the sight and smell of poverty and homelessness with criminals and lazy people living off the public dole. They become the willing wardens of the nowhere prisons where homeless people are thrown like trash; making certain no housing is made available to them. Not even a tent or tarp. Not a bathroom or shower. No shelter from the elements. No nodding off on the trolley or bus. No resting on a park bench. NIMBY people smugly report the unwanted presence of poor folks in fast food joints, public restrooms, parks and parked cars.
And just like that – human beings, families, are brought to their knees. De-humanized.
Right-wing advocates may talk about people needing to be “rugged individuals” responsible for the consequences of the choices they make, but there is really no room for individualism or independent thinking in our current economic system. People must enthusiastically participate in a system rigged against them, or face the ultimate degradation of having absolutely nowhere to be.
Housed people think that homeless people are suffering the consequences of poor choices. The truth is that wealthy people make poor choices too. but they can use their money and power to hit the reset button on their lives. They can drink too much and do drugs in the privacy of their homes, and when they hit bottom they go to expensive rehab facilities to get sober, over and over again. Their kids get sick too, but the medical bills are paid, and if needed, a caregiver is hired. When they retire, they can live comfortably on their savings, travel, party and spoil their grandchildren.
As long as we all agree to look the other way, believe the skewed data and “don’t go there,” homelessness will continue to increase – until it begins to hurt the system, like it did last year when a Hepatitis A crisis in San Diego made international news and the tourism business was threatened.
The perpetrators of the system solved that problem by making the invisible disappear. They did it with citations and hoses and chlorine and mega tents and a pseudo count that made it look like they were reducing the numbers. But people are physical beings. They don’t just magically disappear no matter how cruel you are to them. They still have to be someplace.
Which begs the question, as it becomes more and more difficult to hide the magnitude of the problem, have we dehumanized homeless people sufficiently to make concentration camps acceptable? Ask your neighbor.