There's a War on America's Homeless - but they're fighting back!

by Basav Sen

This year, the Friday after Thanksgiving this year was not only the
busiest shopping day of the year (when the wasteful consumerism of our
"effluent society" is most evident), but also the date for an
exuberant display of a very different spirit. In Atlanta, San
Francisco, here in Boston, and other places, thousands of people, who
are routinely denied their basic right to a home in American cities
and negatively stereotyped and dehumanized in the media and popular
consciousness, showed that they are angry, articulate, and in defiance
of the myths about them -- eager to fight for change.
	A pernicious myth about the homeless is that they deserve to
be where they are because they are lazy and lack the will to
change. This is a perspective which vests all power -- social,
political, and moral -- in disembodied individuals without a social
context. But humans do not descend from outer space carried by storks
in baskets; and myths which perpetuate pre-Stone Age views, about how
there are only individuals and no such thing as society, can best be
placed right next to tales about storks and babies.
	Our present society and its political and economic structure
is formed of certain institutions, and the notions of private property
rights and the attendant right to speculative investment in real
estate is one of them. In this political system, people do not have a
right to shelter; but they have a right to own unlimited tracts of
land, leave them unused for years, "develop" them to make multimillion
dollar hotels and golf courses by paving over sensitive wetlands, and
drive out low income tenants. All this is possible of course only if
they are able, or in the strange doublespeak of neoliberal economics,
"willing" to pay for it.
	Many homeless are the victims of a system in which persons can
be randomly laid off (or to use the corporate euphemism for it,
"re-engineered"), become unemployment statistics, and get pitifully
low unemployment benefits which far from make up for the loss of
income. And in a world of "re-engineering" everywhere, they find it
hard to get stable new jobs. Many people just do not have a supportive
network of friends and relatives who are able to help them through
rough times. In addition, their low-income rental housing is often
sold to some "developer." (It is interesting that such an affirmative
word with connotations of improvement is used for something so
destructive.) This new owner may "gentrify" the property by raising
rent to increase profits, driving out the low income tenants. Because
their numbers are growing and decent low-rent housing is disappearing,
the newly homeless find it nearly impossible to get affordable
housing, and remain homeless. Devastatingly, their status as homeless
persons make it even harder for them to get jobs after this, because
of the stereotype of the "irresponsible drunk street person." No one
is willing to give a job to someone without an address and telephone
number. So the vicious cycle of homelessness and poverty
continues. "Individual responsibility"? That's bullshit. The present
political economy makes a large homeless population inevitable.
	But to legitimate itself, the present system needs to bury
this truth and scapegoat the victims; hence the stereotypes about the
homeless and the myth about individual responsibility. This has led to
an increasingly ugly mood among the privileged nationwide. City after
city has passed "beautification", "anti-panhandling", "anti-camping",
and "public safety" ordinances to legalize police brutality against
the homeless -- as if driving them from one place to another is
somehow going to make the problem disappear. These ballot initiatives
are financially backed by real estate developers who want to turn
downtown areas into shopping malls where affluent, white suburbanites
can indulge in their consumerist fantasies. And the suburbanites turn
out in large numbers to vote for them.
	In addition to covering up the truths about our society, the
real power in promoting the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" is
that it is also profoundly disempowering, and can mislead the victims
themselves into thinking they are somehow to blame for their own
plight. This pathological mindset isolates them from each other so
that they cannot organize.
	Such indoctrination will fail if education and the promise of
a better society can drive people to action. In this spirit, the
homeless and their supporters have organized to form Homes Not Jails,
a non-hierarchical action group that fights for housing rights. The
group believes that housing is a basic human right, and has chapters
in many American cities. They have occupied abandoned housing projects
in New York City and public parks in San Francisco, to protest
gentrification and government inaction. These protests have been met
with police brutality and, not surprisingly, stunning silence from the
mainstream media.
	On the day after Thanksgiving this year, HNJ chapters in many
cities organized protests to draw attention to the violence of
homelessness on a day when many Americans who buy the notion of the
"American dream" participate in the "American dream" of buying. Here
in Boston, Homes Not Jails and their supporters met at the
intersection of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue and marched to
an abandoned building which had earlier been occupied by Homes Not
Jails members in a symbolic protest.
	We gathered outside the Hynes Convention Center subway station
around noon, holding beautiful masks and signs saying "Homes Not
Jails" and "Housing For All." We had a mobile public address system,
and folk singer David Rovics entertained us with songs of protest. The
police tried to harass us by saying that we needed permission to use
an amplified sound system in public, so David switched to playing
without amplification. Then a City of Boston work crew appeared on the
scene and tried to drown us out with their repair operation (I'm not
sure what they were repairing), but our spirit was undampened. A group
of high school students passing by joined us to swell our number to
about 50. After waiting about 15 minutes for the crowd to gather, we
were eager to march. Chanting all the way, accompanied by a lively
drum beat, we marched down Newbury Street, around the block, back onto
Massachusetts Avenue, and then finally to the occupied building. The
chants were very militant, as was the mood of the crowd, and included
"Housing cutbacks by the hour, we say no, fight the power," "Stop the
welfare to the rich, and build more homes," and "Money for welfare,
not for warfare." We also passed out handbills to passers-by along the
way; some of them were supportive if they could not join the march,
and a few even joined!
	Then we reached the building. The protesters inside had
entered by jumping in through an open window at the back to open the
back door from inside, and had been waiting for us to arrive without
making themselves visible. Once we were there, they unfurled banners
from inside saying "Housing is a Human Right" and "Homes not Jails,
Housing for People not Profit." In a flurry of speed and preparedness
that characterized the entire action, they quickly taped the banners
up securely.
	After this, we heard short speeches from the protesters
inside. We heard some amazing facts. The number of homeless in greater
Boston is 6,000 by official estimates, so even if that is a 50%
underestimate (as it is quite likely to be), the number is 12,000. And
the number of vacant housing units is 22,900. So there are twice as
many vacant homes as there are persons out in the cold, in a society
that prides itself as the home of freedom. Many of the housing units
were acquired by real estate speculators in the greedy boom of the
'80s, using loans from banks. Then the investments turned out to be
bad, the developers defaulted on the loans and the banks obtained the
property. Taxpayers paid for the bad loans made by the banks in the
infamous S&L bailout. (In our "free" market, profits are private but
losses are public.) And these housing units have been vacant ever
since. The speakers did an excellent job of explaining the underlying
causes of this outrage -- the institutional and societal recognition
of "rights" to speculative investment in real estate but not of the
right of humans to shelter. They also drew connections between the war
on the homeless and other homophobic, racist, and sexist attacks on
marginalized and powerless people. These events were followed by more
songs of protest, and Food not Bombs distributed a delicious free
lunch to all participants.
	The police showed up, but not in strength, and surprisingly
enough were not too aggressive. Perhaps because they were very few in
number and taken completely by surprise, and perhaps because they saw
the cameras of community TV crews, the police gave the protesters
outside one hour to disperse, or get arrested. But we had a lawyer
with us (yet another sign of how well prepared we were), and he
advised us that while standing on the sidewalk without permission is
an illegal picket, walking around is not. So we announced that
publicly and started moving in a circle. Seeing that we had a lawyer
with us and knew the laws, the police were further scared into
inaction -- they could not bend the rules to harass us!
	After a couple of hours (during which I nearly froze to death,
being a tropical animal!), the protesters occupying the building
emerged, since this was a symbolic protest. But they emphasized this
was only the beginning of an expanding movement. We hung out
afterwards to drink and to talk, emphasizing the spirit of community
among those of us who resist. Together we had created an alternative
space outside of the alienating patriarchal capitalist culture. The
struggle can be fun, too.
	Keep your eyes and ears open for the next Homes Not Jails
action!  For further information, please contact: Jen Jones
, Theo Emery , or leave a message
with the Thistle (253-0399) if you do not have access to email.

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