For some, the word triggers a gag reflex: Up comes a belly full of bile, spleen and invective. Why don’t they get a job, take some responsibility and get clean and sober?
For others, the word opens a spigot through which flows the milk of human kindness. They remember religion’s admonition to be charitable. They think, “There but for the grace of God go I,” (though they have trouble when they encounter a homeless person unworthy of their love — the sloppy drunk peeing on the sidewalk or the panhandler who snarls when they ignore his outstretched hand.)
For the militants, the word sparks a surge of adrenaline. “To hell,” they say, “with charity. ‘The homeless’ don’t need it. They need their rights, human and constitutional. Like blacks. Like women.” (Strains of “The Internationale” can be heard in the background.)
And then there are those the politicians in Berkeley consider “stakeholders.” They own valuable properties that front our commercial streets and sidewalks. They are business people first and foremost, and they have decided that “the homeless” are bad for their business. At their behest, City Council directs the city manager to draft laws designed to pressure “the homeless” into giving up and going somewhere else.
Pity “the homeless,” not so much, because they lack homes — places to wash and shower and store their belongings — but because they are so projected upon. Exposed as they are in the public space, they remain invisible.
Ultimately, there is no such entity as “the homeless” — a generic mass with barcodes stamped on foreheads.
For more than 25 years, I have represented people, one of whose characteristics, among many, is that they live outdoors. I’ve listened to their stories, strange and tangled tales of benighted childhoods, catastrophes and loss at too early an age, of missing the boat and falling off the rails, of pride and self-flagellation, of alienation and disgust, of love and longing. I’ve known the scurrilous, the benighted and the addicted, the depressed and the manic, the kind and the unkind, the angry and the apathetic, the poets and artists, the scammers and the scammed, the gregarious hanging out in front of Starbucks and the recluses who hide from sight, like prey animals whose protection is invisibility.
The tug of war about the homeless has gone on fruitlessly and way too long.
The world is going to hell in a handbasket. California is parched. The poles are melting. So are the glaciers in the Himalayas. Hurricanes increase in intensity. The oceans are rising, their waters acidifying and their great schools of fish flunking out of existence. And the richest 85 people in the world own as much as the bottom half of the world’s population.
Are things screwed up, or are they screwed up? Do those 85 deserve that amount of wealth? Are they more responsible or more prudent than the bottom half? Is the bottom half to blame for its impoverishment?
California has more super rich and the highest poverty rate in the nation. Berkeley has the greatest disparity between rich and poor of any city in California. Are the rich people on Grizzly Peak more responsible or more prudent than the poor people in Sacramento? Do they deserve their wealth? Do the young people sleeping on the sidewalk deserve their poverty?
Or are obscene inequalities of wealth and power characteristic of a system careening into an abyss and threatening to take nature down with it?
We are doodling on the Titanic.
All the efforts we make to protect our pathetic smidgen of privilege, all our fenced and fortified enclaves and all our dreams of security and comfort are at grave risk.
And we continue to blame those stranded at the bottom of the heap for our dissatisfaction. Those 85 on top are lost from view.
Laws will not protect us from “the homeless.” Laws against sleeping on planter walls or panhandling within 10 feet of a parking meter pay station or “deployment” of bedding on the street (all being considered by the Berkeley City Council) will not drive them away any more than the law will prevent your fingernails from growing or your stomach from grumbling when you’re hungry.
Violence will not drive them away. Police kicking a homeless young man in the balls and torturing a disabled women by forcing her arms behind her back will not drive them away. Nor will “ambassadors” who sucker punch a homeless guy behind CVS pharmacy. (All of which happened in the last three months in Berkeley.)
They are us. Their needs are our needs: a house, a home, a place to bathe, a place to heal and a private place to be stupid and indulge their vices.
Is that too much to ask?
Osha Neumann is a supervising attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center.