Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"A Social Cyclical Clusterfuck"

We recently had the final session of my class on homelessness and poverty. It's a pass fail sort of affair for honors students only. All it takes to get credit is reasonable attendance and a final paper. For some students, the paper is a bit of a blow off kind of thing, and for others it's a heartfelt reassessment of the state of the world. It is these that I particularly enjoy. I made everyone talk by going around the room in order, asking for a summary of highlights.

One student, who wore an expression of outrage and disgust for much of the class, said she now knows that homelessness is "a social, cyclical, clusterfuck," and noted that this was the first time in her academic career that she swore in a term paper. I'd obviously gotten to her. Another said she'd volunteered in shelters for a few years and thought she knew everything about homelessness. She now understood that she knew nothing. That made me happy. I wish that those who run the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has some of her humility. Another said the class made him want to be a lawyer for social justice. I warned him about law school ruining people.

The assignment was simply to take four pages or so to say what you'd learned or to talk about how your ideas about homelessness had shifted. Here's some of the highlights.

During part of the course, I make the connections between race, poverty, incarceration, and racial disproportionality among those who are homeless. Students were shocked to learn that one in ninety-nine Americans are behind bars, and that the rise of the prison industrial complex roughly parallels the ascension of modern homelessness. I talk about this as a by-product of globalization, and how fundamentally, both issues are about the problem of surplus people in an economy that abandons those who are not in demand in workers. The war on drugs, I say, is the blunt instrument by which poor and uneducated minorities whose local economies have been devastated are criminalized, contained, and disenfranchised, and I describe how this is about the downward spiral of race-biased incarceration and the racialization of poverty. Students were surprised to learn that those with drug convictions are barred from food stamps, public housing, VA benefits, AFDC, and education benefits for life.

This, I said, is about ensuring that those who are down never, ever, get the chance to get back up. One student dragged out his Foucault (ah, college) to focus on the centrality of invisibility to the continuation of this extreme injustice. It's an insight that hadn't fully hit me.

Another, the one who now wants to be a public interest lawyer, compared homelessness to "a spider stuck in a bathtub trying to crawl its way out." Nice. He was "astonished" that city workers would "throw away the only personal belongings the homeless have for protection and warmth."

It's a cruel world out there kids. Get used to it.

One young woman with a fondness for semicolons had a father who warned that classism was the discrimination of the future. He hadn't, however, prepared her for the fact that a college BA meant only access to relatively low-wage work in retail. She remarked that my class had left her with "a pervading sense of hopelessness."
Homelessness is symptomatic of our structural shortcomings in society; the evidence is ubiquitous, in the labor market, prison disparities and educational opportunities; it is no secret what would remedy the problem. In this country ... adjustments are hopeless because they threaten the wealth, power, and identity of the gatekeepers. As long as money and power are grossly intertwined, the homeless will continue to be poor and powerless with no end in sight.
If she ever gets over her despair, she'll make a pretty good revolutionary.

Several reacted to the reading from the Stanford Social Review that, through MRI imaging, found that many people's reactions to the homeless were based on hatred and disgust, lighting up similar areas of the brain as images of garbage on the street. These feelings are more pervasive, one reasoned, than those of racism and sexism, "so why are these feelings of disgust toward homelessness not being addressed?"

This is the sort of excellent question that makes me want to keep teaching this class.

One honest sort copped to being "intimidated and fearful" of me. The roots of this, she said, was fear that she might learn something about herself that was less than flattering. She wanted to hear that "giving change and smiles" was enough, and that the problem was being taken care of. "Having been proven utterly wrong and naive, what remains for me is to alter my own perception of the homeless and subsequently change my actions." Maybe, she said, "you'll see me at some future protest."

One of my favorite papers was from a girl who questioned the callousness of Jesus' injunction that "the poor will always be with you" and went on to ask why the church doesn't get that charity isn't enough. She relayed her experience of wanting to solve homelessness by helping in a shelter and being relegated to peeling fruit. Having learned the economic realities behind homelessness, and knowing homelessness had been solved in the past by enlightened policy decisions, she wants her church to see the light as well. "In order to change the structural realities of homelessness," she said, "we must participate in political activism to influence the public policies that help shape the economic and social landscape of America."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

One wonderful student helpfully offered a eight point synopsis of what she had learned:
  1. Homelessness hasn't always been this way; there is context.
  2. Homelessness today is much more systemic than individual
  3. Economics has a lot to do with it (globalization, gentrification)
  4. So does institutionalized racism and lack of resources for the poor, sick, and mentally ill.
  5. Services are not adequate.
  6. The system does not want to change.
  7. Those in charge prefer to appear to be changing things over actually changing them.
  8. There is something you can do. Volunteer and ORGANIZE!
She planned to be at Camp4Unity. "There is hope," she said. We need to "get enough people angry to force City Hall to do something."

Another, in line with this, drew my attention to an Urban Dictionary term I hadn't encountered: facadomy. This is where the facade of a building is preserved, but all authenticity is lost by the gutting of what's inside. "Cities, specifically Seattle, are making efforst to end homelessness but these efforts seem to be marred by practices of maintaining a beautiful facade of public service and reduction in rates of homelessness while destroying practical efforts." If I had any gold stars to give, this guy would get two, but when I checked the Urban Dictionary entry, the definition was rather more obscene.

Every once in awhile though, someone really, really gets it. One paper, entitled Homelessness: The System Working Exactly As Intended, summed it things up nicely.
City and federal governments campaign to 'end homelessness' do not end homelessness but merely redefine it. By narrowing the definition, highlighting the most dysfunctional, and focusing of data, government can assuage middle-class discomfort with homelessness ... In this way, politicians play the political game by relocating homelessness rather than solving it. We see this in "broken windows" theory which posits the homeless as social blemishes that threaten to push well-to-do society down a slippery slope into urban decay. Hence, we see the trend of anti-camping and anti-sitting ordinances that drive the homeless out of the newly revitalized, glittery urban centers; where they end up is not necessarily a concern when urban elections are held every four years.
This student went on to say that homelessness will be solved when the middle-class — defined as essentially everyone south of the top income quintile who isn't poor (I'd actually start that at least half a quintile higher) — realizes that their own economic vulnerability and that of homeless people are linked, and start pressing for broad structural reform.

Finally, my absolute favorite was from the visibly outraged and disgusted one. I loved watching her. This was, she confessed, the first time she ever swore in a term paper. "Politicians purport that one of their primary concerns is ending homelessness, but it is all just a bunch of bull shit." She also used caps for emphasis: "the causes of homelessness are STRUCTURAL AND POLITICAL!"

She also, with admirable pith, placed her finger on another problem. When homelessness is defined as primarily a matter of bad luck, she said, all one can do about it is to feel pity. "Pity, she said, "does not build houses."


Bruce from Accordion Noir said...

"Pity does not build houses."

That kicks ass! I want that on my next picket sign, or on the back of T-Shirts visible while they drag us away.

Seriously, that's awesome.

Anonymous said...

This post was awesome, and gives me hope.

Young, educated people who have a start in life that can put them in places of power and influence later in life, seeing the light.

My favorite part was the guy who understood that trying to get out of homelessness is like a spider crawling out of a bathtub.

My own experience felt exactly like that. I could not get out of the bathtub alone. I was one of the lucky ones though. I got into a slot where people saw I was trying hard as hell to get out of that tub, and they gave me a hand.

That hand, that short term societal investment in me paid off. I did not in a hospital, a mental facility or a jail, costing my society far more than their investment. That investment is why I am now able to contribute.

Trouble is, there are far too few slots like I got, and the bathtub walls keep getting higher because of what another of your students referred to as "facadomy".

Tim, thank you for sharing your students thoughts and comments. Would enjoy seeing more.

Bill said...

Tim, not that you don't do good things in the print world, but it has to be a topper to fire up some folks who still have energy, can still have a dream nudge them into action, and who will listen to someone as unlikely as you tell them that cupcakes and lollipops won't cut it out there. Thanks for this term, and do it and do it and do it as long as they'll have you

Sally said...

Tim unlikely? He's a very likely guy, the likeliest guy you'll ever meet.

Now some educational work is needed with the City Council, maybe by making them sit in a corner until they behave.

alison said...

that is so amazing. i wish i had the opportunity to take a class on poverty and homelessness when i was in college. or even now. ooooo, i know! you should teach the class at the seattle free college, and then i can take it!

Packratt said...

Great post, it was really interesting to read about how these students reacted to your class... so much so I wish I could have taken it too.


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