Ending homelessness, for me, has always been about much more than housing and shelter. Homelessness is a reflection of economic abandonment and institutionalized racial discrimination. It is the inexorable result of extreme inequality.
In the ’80s, almost six presidential administrations ago, we saw the beginnings of mass homelessness. Over that decade alone, the numbers of homeless people in America tripled or quadrupled in most cities.
Where I lived and worked in Boston, there was a homeless encampment called Homefront ’88. This small tent city initially formed at the Massachusetts State House as an overnight protest. That protest turned into a self-managed survival camp that lasted for four months in front of Boston City Hall.
At that time, the Reagan administration had reshaped America with the idea that the rising tide of affluence would eventually lift all boats. This idea, long revealed for the fraud that it is, was never more than a thin excuse for unapologetic greed.
It was clear, even then, that there were some boats we couldn’t care less about. Those boats were loaded with rocks and meant to sink, quietly and painfully, out of sight.
As the realities of globalization generated new mobility and freedom for jobs and capital, we saw the creation of a vast surplus population of the abandoned and unemployed.
Our cities were transformed from centers of work and manufacturing to islands of affluence, where the rich would be coddled and comforted and the poor would be managed though punitive new laws meant to demean and isolate.
As I lived and worked among the people of Homefront, I found that whatever sense of collective oppression people might have felt was muted by their sense of personal failure.
I saw firsthand how mass homelessness was a form of institutionalized dehumanization. I watched people at Boston’s Pine Street Inn line up for shelter, strip for delousing and a monitored shower, and get a ticket, day after day, for a poor night’s sleep in a noisy, crowded, overheated room.
Eventually, I became a professional organizer. Through my work, I came to know a woman named Lisa Peattie, an accomplished urban anthropologist and professor emeritus at MIT. She told me that, “Once you define a people as less than human, you can do anything you want to them.”
That insight became the foundation of an enduring personal mission: to build bridges of understanding and compassion between the comfortable and the afflicted.
During the ’90s, mass homelessness was joined by mass incarceration as a racialized means of managing those who the absence of opportunity had left behind. As homelessness doubled and doubled again, so did the numbers of those in prison. Over three decades, we saw the U.S. prison population go from 300,000 to 2.3 million.
Mass homelessness and mass incarceration were cut from the same dehumanizing cloth. And most people were OK with that. Out of sight, out of mind.
Those who we abandoned were labeled as mentally ill, drug addicted, alcoholic, lazy, dangerous and criminal. Even in a liberal city such as Seattle, we see homeless people associated with trash, feces, urine and drug abuse to justify bureaucratic systems of oppression.
Many of us fear that a Trump administration will accelerate the dehumanization that racial and economic discrimination has wrought. History shows us that when the value-free workings of a bureaucratic state are joined with militarized force, previously unimagined evils become possible and normalized.
Real Change began as a means of providing immediate opportunity to those at the margins of society, and breaking down the walls of fear and isolation that breed contempt. Our journalism and activism go to the heart of the racial and economic discrimination that make mass homelessness and incarceration possible.
Real Change is, in the broadest sense, a project of humanization that allows us to see beyond the labels to the person. To go beyond the rhetoric of personal failure to the reality of systemic abandonment.
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