Switch on, switch on and shoot up – in doors
The existence of homelessness in wealthy cities creates a state of discomfort, if not utter guilt, among those well or adequately housed, who after all are far more numerous than the homeless. Is there a problem here, if any, that local and national authorities should resolve, or at least reduce to a miniscule level?
However, the matter is complex and, although it is listed under a single name, it has several causes which differ in different places. Homelessness is more of a syndrome than a disease.
For example, in London I found that there are no people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin among the homeless, as should be the case if a low household income and housing costs were the explanation for homelessness. There are also few blacks among them, certainly not Africans, and the few blacks you see are either overtly psychotic or take drugs – or both, of course. Furthermore, by no means all white homeless people come from the lowest social class.
In Paris, on the other hand, aside from the traditional clochards, the homeless appear largely to be immigrants from the Balkans or the Middle East who set up camps under flyovers or even bidonvilles that border the maze of highways in, out and around the city. The favelas of Rio are charming in comparison.
California is the mecca or inferno of American homelessness, depending on how you see it. In a few short years, for example, San Francisco has transformed from one of the nicest cities in the United States to one notorious for its filth and deterioration. Between 2014 and 2019, homelessness fell in the US, except on the West Coast, where it increased by more than 5 percent annually. The question is why and what to do about it?
The four authors of this book, who write separate chapters, have studied homelessness in California for years and have written chapters from an economic, legal, political, and cultural perspective. All are writing clearly and the sincerity of their concern shines through. They do not lose sight of the fact that every homeless person is a person and not just a statistic. You are human without being sentimental.
From the point of view of a non-Californian, some of the official policies and legal decisions mentioned in the book are such that they raise interesting questions of psychology and political philosophy. How is it that such guidelines and decisions, which almost naturally are of no use to anyone year after year and which adversely affect many, do not lead to effective opposition in a supposedly democratic system? Why are hundreds of thousands of very wealthy people settling for living in a city that they are now avoiding entire areas? Why do they tolerate the fact that areas that were once frequented by tourists are now homeless, pooping in entrances and doors, leaving half-eaten food in gutters, sowing the ground with hypodermic needles, and the passage of pedestrians with their camps hinder? And why are they doing this while continuing to pay sky-high taxes – a significant portion of that goes into maintaining the entire appalling status quo?
The final answers, I suppose (disregarding the very sizable institutional and bureaucratic interests that have arisen in the continuation of the problem) must be found in the ideology whose effect on the spirit, at least on the educated, has been stronger than grasping a concrete reality for many years. Ideology is a lens that can distort Sodom and Gomorrah into a shining city on a hill. This is the only explanation of how people cannot view human excrement on the street as disgusting and harmful to health, but rather as an expression of human freedom.
What should we say of a judge who says panhandling cannot be banned because it is a form of expression protected by the first amendment to the constitution? In this case, any human activity is such a protective expression: in fact, a slap in the mouth or a stiletto in the ribs is usually the expression of a very strong and sincere opinion.
Interest groups are filing lawsuits on behalf of homeless litigants – whom they will likely have to find, solicit, and choose – against councilors who try to impose every weak control on the homeless. The judges agree that quoting people who defecate on the street is a cruel and unusual punishment, since evacuation is, after all, a compelling human function and the homeless have nowhere else to do it. You might as well punish people for irresponsibly exhaling carbon dioxide. In fact, the law created two groups of people, the licensed and the unlicensed, to take the strain off the streets.
There is an implicit contradiction between the views of economist Dr. Winegarden and the other authors. Dr. Winegarden provides an economic explanation for California homelessness. He points out that housing in California is far more expensive than the rest of America (apart from Hawaii). In addition, electricity, gasoline, and food are considerably more expensive there than in most American states. This means that an unusually high proportion of Californians – about 18 percent, according to his calculations – are only a monthly wage package away from financial disaster. Individuals without social support can be on the street at any time and fail to meet their rent or mortgage payments.
I don’t find that a very convincing explanation. It would suggest that California’s homeless population is divided into two parts, the crazy or drug addicts on the one hand and (much more numerous) the “respectable” homeless on the other, who are simply victims of bad luck and the high cost of life.
If this were the case, the solution to the problem of homelessness would be at least conceptually or theoretically simple: cheaper housing. Unfortunately, thanks to the California approach to regulation, cheap housing in California is very expensive, up to $ 700,000 per unit. Housing the homeless at this price would cost approximately $ 105 billion. Even without draconian regulation, the costs would be enormous and it is believed that no new homeless would take their free housing.
For now, California has chosen anarchy, but tyranny could arise one day. Nobody wants a society in which people behave well because there is a cop behind every tree if they don’t, or alternatively a society in which there are no standards at all for acceptable behavior.
But there is worse than the bare cost: homeless people who have been assigned new homes have worse results than those who stay on the streets, in terms of drug use, death rate, etc. This is because California is a resolutely non-judgmental one Adopts an attitude towards the social pathologies of the homeless: that is, the aim of any assistance given to them should be to reduce the harm that arises from their pathology, not to reduce the pathology itself. If housing is made available to them, it should therefore be unconditional and not require any change or even an attempt at change on their part. As Mr Rufo, whose work admirably combines the testimony of living personal experience with statistical generalization, says the result of the self-congratulatory, self-proclaimed open-mindedness of policy makers is a disaster.
The authors acknowledge that it is important that we separate pathology from the person who has it: sin from the sinner, to employ in the old-fashioned way. They do not advocate simply sweeping the homeless off the streets and imprisoning them or forcing them to be chain gangs. However, it is equally important to recognize that to passively accept and even defend behaviors such as publicly injecting heroin into the neck veins, insane paranoid attacks, and using the streets as a giant toilet is neither wise nor generous, and doomed many ordinary citizens to suffering daily horrors while causing harm to people who behave this way. Though the authors do not emphasize it, the aesthetic effects are deplorable: and when beauty is an important, if not all-important, end of life, clinging to the homeless, as in California, noticeably diminishes both the pleasure and meaning of life.
Another mistake that led to the current deteriorating situation was the immediate closure of the psychiatric hospitals without much thought about what to replace them. While the conditions in these hospitals were often deplorable, no one concluded that many of our schools did not teach anything we did not need. The idea that the psychotics should live freely as they wanted was all very good, but if they were also to be excused as anti-social behavior because they were sick and could not do anything about it, a Walpurgis Night had to result. when psychosis-inducing drugs became as readily available as aspirin.
Balancing personal freedom and the need to accept some common standards of behavior has never been easy, and one of the things this book illustrates is that there must be what Lord Justice Moulton calls “obedience to the unenforceable” a society is to be both free and orderly. The range is wide, between what the law enforces and total freedom of choice in matters that have no moral or social significance. In his 1924 speech, entitled Law and Manners, Lord Moulton said:
Obedience [to the unenforceable] is the obedience of a person to that to which he cannot be forced. He is the executor of the law upon himself.
If that realm disappears, we have two options: anarchy or tyranny, both with a loss of freedom. For now, California has chosen anarchy, but tyranny could arise one day. Nobody wants a society in which people behave well because there is a police officer behind every tree if they don’t, or alternatively a society in which there are no standards at all for acceptable behavior. As this book shows, California has chosen the latter, at least when it comes to homelessness. The motto is: switch on, switch on and shoot up – in doors.