Monday, April 16, 2007

Neutralizing Homelessness

Several weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on an article by Columbia University's radical urban planner Peter Marcuse that ran in Christianity and Crisis in 1988. This was an abbreviated version of the influential Neutralizing Homelessness, which was published in Socialist Review in January, 1988. Finding the original took awhile, but the interlibrary copy service eventually came through, and a PDF is now posted here at my streetpaper class wiki.

Given that most people are too lazy to read a 25-page article from a socialist academic journal, however accessible, brilliant, and completely relevant that article might be, even nearly 20 years after its publication (Yes, I am taunting you to read it. DO IT NOW!) I will summarize the highlights.

Marcuse says that the widespread existence of homelessness in a society as affluent as our own is a moral outrage that challenges the legitimacy of the social and economic order itself. Homelessness, therefore, must be ideologically neutralized.

Homeless people, then, are both physically isolated from mainstream daily life and contact, and politically isolated from the larger economic context. We have the odd phenomena, therefore, of talking a great deal about homelessness, while taking no effective action to actually solve the problem.

To address the root causes of homelessness — a profit driven housing system where "those who cannot provide others with profit get no housing," a deindustrialized global economy wherein homeless people are "the surplus of the surplus" within a system based on the existence of surplus people, and a neo-conservative free-market ideology that still insists that supply side economics is in the best interest of all of us — would be, well, revolutionary.

Revolutionaries being in short supply these days, what we get instead are neo-liberal palliatives that do more to mask the problem than to solve it.

I asked my class to consider the Bush administration's advocacy for Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness even as they continue to wage war on the social programs that alleviate poverty as a zen koan: a seemingly absurd, irresolvable dilemma that, considered long enough, may offer a breakthrough to some form of enlightenment.

I feel like I'm finally beginning to understand,

"If government does not deal with homelessness," says Marcuse, "it appears illegitimate and unjust; if it does try seriously to alleviate homelessness, it breaks the link between work and reward that legitimizes wage labor. Neither horn of the dilemma is a comfortable resting place."

Solutions, therefore, are "aimed more at dealing with ordinary (housed) people's reactions to homelessness than with homelessness itself." Again, isolate the problem intellectually. Isolate the people physically.

We've seen all of the techniques Marcuse outlines:

DENY: Find creative ways to low ball the numbers. Narrow the definition so as to exclude. Minimize.

Focus public attention on the most stigmatized members of the homeless (mentally ill, addicted, alcoholic) and place the blame on character defects, as opposed to, oh, structural unemployment and unaffordable housing.

Data and subpopulations. Baffle us with bullshit. Marcuse quotes neo-conservative Thomas Mann saying solutions to homelessness should be in the form of "separate policies for separate subpopulations" rather than focusing on universals such as housing, wages, and access to social services.

Ghettoizing homeless people outside of mainstream society in shelters and such while criminalizing public displays of extreme poverty with no-sitting ordinances, forbidding public feeding, criminalizing park sleeping, etcetera, all of which are on the rise nationwide.

Sadly, his prescriptive solutions of twenty years ago didn't really take. The militant Union of the Homeless that so inspired him in 1988 pretty much flamed out within a few years. A direct-action based demand for housing mostly ended with the 1990 suicide of Mitch Snyder. The National Coalition for the Homeless, which once carried the torch for a more structural approach to homelessness, is a shadow of its former self, and has been entirely eclipsed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which operates hand in glove with the Bush administration's United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

It's time for homeless advocates, housing activists, and everyone else who is talking so much about ending homelessness these days to seriously re-examine our work. The good news is that expectations have been raised. Everyone's talking about ending homelessness. The bad news is that the strategies we've been offered won't work.

For those of us who are in the game, it's time to seriously up the ante.


Mark said...

I think the homeless problem goes with the war on drugs. Alot of people are doing time for relatively harmless drug related crime. This costs the Gov. alot of money(to imprison), most people don't have a problem with Pot, yet people are locked up for it. To be seen soft on drugs is political suicide so nothing changes. If the drug problem is so messed up, the problem of adequate food and shelter for homeless people isn't going to be fixed by the government either.
"Colorado taxpayers spend around $100 million a year to incarcerate drug offenders in state prisons"

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