By Peter Van Buren
Source: We Meant Well
“What stands out for visitors?” I asked our guide during a Honolulu Chinatown tour with my out-of-town guests. “Always the same, the homeless. Even Mainlanders from big cities like San Francisco and New York are surprised how many we have here. I’m waiting to see how the Japanese and Korean guests respond when they start traveling again.”
You can’t miss his point. During our brief walk through Chinatown’s markets we saw a disturbed man dressed only in his underwear touching himself, several seriously street-worn people begging, and watched the fire department respond to a prone homeless man who was dead or simply drugged into paralysis. When someone in our party needed the toilet, the shopkeeper apologized for having to keep it locked to prevent misuse by vagrants. Many places simply had signs saying “no public toilet.” Despite some great tasting food, it was hard to keep up a holiday spirit. Same for when we passed the tent cities and parks overtaken by homeless along a drive on the Windward side.
The numbers only begin to tell the story. Pre-COVID, there were an estimated 6,458 homeless in Hawaii. The Big Island saw the biggest jump in homelessness from 2019-2020, a 16 percent increase. On Oahu the homeless population is up 12 percent. San Francisco before COVID counted over 8,000 homeless persons, and while COVID-era numbers are hard to pin down, one measure is overdose deaths among the homeless, which have tripled. New York has the highest homeless population of any American metropolis, close to 80,000 and growing. The number of homeless there today is 142 percent higher than it was 10 years ago, and currently at the highest level since the Great Depression. Some 3,000 human beings make their full-time home in the subway.
Estimates for the United States as a whole run well over half a million people living homeless. The number shoots up dramatically if one includes people living in their cars, people on their way to exhausting the good will of friends who offered a couch, and those who slide in and out of motels as money ebbs and flows. Some 21 percent of American children live in poverty, homeless or not. In the end nobody actually knows how many people are living without adequate shelter except that it is a large number and it is a growing number and there is nothing in line to lower it, only to find new ways to tolerate it.
We have in many places already surrendered our public parks and libraries. The hostile architecture of protrusions and spikes which make it impossible to sleep on a park bench are pretty much sculpted into the architecture of the city, markers of the struggle for public space. The idea even has its own Instagram account. A security firm offers tips: restrict access to sidewalk overhangs protected from inclement weather, remove handles from water spigots, and keep trash dumpsters locked. If things get too bad, the company, for a price, will deploy “remote cameras with military-grade algorithms capable of detecting people in areas they shouldn’t be in.”
Keep in mind that all of these homeless people coexist in a United States whose wealthiest citizens have their own spaceships. NYC alone is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. New York is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world. How is it that the nation’s wealthiest city and poorest city are the same place?
All the solutions seem to fail. There are not enough shelters we are told but even when more shelters are built the homeless are too paranoid to move in,or the shelters become too dirty, too dangerous, chaos compacted, so the transition from an encampment to supportive housing isn’t easy. In ravaged San Francisco, one out of 10 of the city’s already existing supportive housing units are empty, with the director of the Department of Homelessness (!) placing the blame on individuals. So the homeless problem becomes a mental health problem which becomes a drug and alcohol problem which becomes a public health problem. Our society will not force people into care, and it will not deport the homeless against their will to desert camps. Instead we simply do nothing absent throwing a few bucks into food programs as an expedient over stepping around too many bodies in the street. Meanwhile nobody asks why nothing seems to work.
When you look at history with enough perspective you see very little happens without cause and effect. Things are connected. Casualty matters more than randomness. Answering the question of what to do about homelessness requires first answering the question of why we have the problem in the first place. Because while homelessness exists elsewhere in the developed world, you simply do not see it at pandemic proportions in equally-developed nations across Europe, and certainly not in the economic superstates like China, Japan, Singapore, et al. Scale and size matter and America wins on both. Why?
Because the American economic system requires homelessness. That’s why we can’t solve homelessness; no matter how much solving you do the system just makes more.
The Democratic arguments over raising the minimum wage are a smokescreen. As long there is a minimum wage and businesses do not have to compete for workers, there have to be homeless people. Think of the homeless as run-off, the unfortunate but necessary waste product of an economic system designed to exploit workers for the benefit of space-traveling overlords. The homeless — no wagers — are the endpoint of an economic spectrum dominated by the minimum wagers, people whose salary and hours, and thus whose chance at lifetime wealth status, are capped by agreement between the government and industry.
Until slavery ended, human beings were considered capital, just like stock today. Now we’re “human resources” so everything’s better. Bringing up race hides the real story of how long this has been going on and how deep a part of our way of life it is. The line between controlling someone with a whip and controlling someone through ever-lower wages gets finer and finer over time.
This is what “systematic” means: a system of public-private sector agreements codified as laws which push workers into a cesspool as grab-and-go disposable labor. Those who sink end up homeless. Those who tread water are guaranteed a life of maybe just enough, their place in society fixed for others’ goals, never their own. It also assures the sales of drugs, alcohol, and lottery tickets as the working poor try to convince themselves all this can’t be true. Can it?
The next step is clear. The working poor are allowed to exist at survival levels only because they are in jobs too expensive or difficult to automate. You think there are a lot of homeless now? Wait until self-driving vehicles click in and another job category simply disappears, leaving drivers and delivery people nowhere to go (there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., making driving one of the most popular occupations.) Same for fast food and other service jobs. Soon enough AI and/or remote online learning will make live teachers an expensive luxury for the children of the wealthy.
If you wanted a clever term about why we have and ignore and can’t address the homeless problem, you could call it systemic inequality in tune with the times’ nomenclature. A system designed to exploit will always exploit too much at its edges. It is supposed to, in order to keep driving the center downward, from 1950s middle class to 2022’s working poor.
But in the near term the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created, much as my tour guide directed us around the homeless nests in Chinatown so we could sample the dim sum at leisure. “Don’t make eye contact” was some of his best advice.