Homeless! and Proud

mansion maze

In January, a California lawmaker proposed one of those rare laws that is at once overdue, destined to seem obvious sooner or later–and extremely unpopular.

I’ll let the Los Angeles Times explain Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s proposal:

The Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act…would guarantee the homeless the right to live in public much as other people do in their homes. They could sit, sleep, move about and engage in “life-sustaining activities that must be carried out in public spaces because of homelessness,” such as eating, urinating and collecting trash to recycle. Under the bill, they could not be forced into shelters, but would have access to them. It also mandates that public bathrooms be available around the clock and protects the “basic human right” to panhandle.

So, I’ve never been homeless, but I have enough evidence that it sucks. I spent a summer traveling in Europe without a stable residence or the money for a hotel. I surfed couches, slept in tents, and sometimes just under a raincoat.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true. I’m a middle class college kid. The problems of Amelia under the bridge in Los Angeles are very different from my European adventure. My near future held employment, social mobility, and of course, a warm bed of my own.

But the point is that I did cross over—if only for two, three days at a time—into that immense displeasure of dreading the nighttime with no place to sleep and dreading the daytime when the police would come by every few hours and roust me from my park bench.

If the feelings of destitution I experienced are any micro-hint at what it feels like to be homeless (even before adding in all the stigma of “looking” homeless, inspiring disgust and suspicion, and generally lacking the resources needed to maneuver through life willfully) then I throw my unrestrained support for the proposed Homeless Bill of Rights.

Even liberals, who are making a good effort to respectfully discuss sexual politics and sometimes racial politics, are still pretty clueless about homelessness. The left-of-center critique of the bill (I have no breath for the dismissive right-wing response) is that its energy is misplaced. This is the attitude of the L. A. Times, for example, which declares, “While we sympathize with its spirit, we don’t support it.”

Spot on. Not a word else needs to be said about the history of the American attitude toward the homeless. From John Steinbeck multiple choice in high school English class to the national chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Our Land,” the dangerous fault in the mainstream attitude toward the unsheltered is that sympathy is a far cry from support.

Talk to a coffeehouse radical for ten minutes about the Chicago Public library and they’ll make a comment about all the “homeless people” sleeping on the tables. I know what they’re referring to—it’s the truth—but when I see a 50 year-old man resting his head on a library table and then jolting up when a library staffer raps near his ear —“No sleeping sir!”—I feel extremely anxious.

Communist Son

Woody didn’t take to kindly to rousters of trainyard sleepers.

Am I unusual in that I know what it feels like to have nowhere within five miles to lay my head down without breaking the law? Naw, everyone has been there at some point. It’s just that when you’re clean shaven and white and wearing a fashionable coat, no one wakes you up. They assume you’ve had a long day at the office, you’ve just broken up with your girlfriend, or you’ve just come off caffeine after a night of test cramming.

The L. A. Times argues that what the homeless need is more resources, not a manifesto–as if the two were mutually exclusive. Actually, you can’t have one without the other. What good is sympathy without support? What good is support without sympathy? And what good are either when the homeless are considered by law to be a public health risk, a public burden, and a disgrace to the city’s beautification projects?

“The solution,” contests the Times, “is not to sanction the culture of homelessness or to offer blanket approval for a way of life that society generally agrees should be ended.”

Oh, we agree, do we?

We all grew up singing “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie’s song is a national anthem, not the secret chant of a radical Marxist critique of land ownership (though that is indeed its origin). The lyrics celebrate the right to wander freely, having been inspired by Guthrie’s life-long contact with the absurdity of being told, Sir, you can’t sit there. That’s public property:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In truth, a city’s disgrace is in how eager it is to repress its homeless “problem,” sweeping the riff-raff off the welcome mat so that the Somebodies feel at home. Ammiano’s Homeless Bill of Rights may take a while to pass, but if there’s any justice in history, it has a future. It makes the inevitable point that homelessness is not a disease that can be irradiated through treatment or quarantine. Homeless Americans, though often suffering from treatable illnesses and shouldering an enormous economic burden, deserve to use public property as if they owned a considerable stake in it. In fact their stake is a matter of life and death.


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