Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Least of These

The Human Condition


In an article (“Organizing Skid Row;” Summer 2019) in Dissent, Cora Currier describes a scene taking place at Venice Beach in Los Angeles:
Mornings on Venice Beach are often chilly, thanks to low-lying leaden clouds known as the marine layer. The gloom leaves no golden SoCal gleam on the graffitied concrete skate structures or the shuttered souvenir hutches promising legal pot, bikinis, T-shirts, and ice cream. Surfers cross the sand with their wetsuits half-on, joggers careen through with smartwatches on their wrists, and jet-lagged tourists wheel their suitcases in search of a beachfront hostel. And each Friday morning, near the famous weight-lifting equipment of Muscle Beach, a flotilla of trucks and police cruisers assembles. Police officers and sanitation workers, dressed in blue uniforms or white Tyvek coveralls, huddle amid the trucks before the sweep begins.
Their targets are the items accumulated by people living on the beach, the boardwalk, and in the alleys of Venice. Los Angeles permits sleeping in public spaces from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., but on Fridays in Venice, the belongings of each of the unhoused must be packed up and consolidated into a sixty-gallon plastic bag, per city code. Anything that doesn’t fit, anything deemed “bulky,” will be seized, and if it’s “soiled,” it will be trashed.
This takes place regularly, the sweeps done as an attempt to remove all evidence of the human beings who are without any permanent shelter. It is done for very practical reasons, as if it is necessary to remove the shame and the stigma that the urban wealthy feel for not doing anything or not enough to better the lives of their fellow citizens— those who are dispirited, downtrodden and denied justice. The least of these.

It is truly a matter of perception. If you view the homeless as lawbreakers, then you will view the police actions as welcome and necessary; if however, you view the homeless as human beings, then you will take action to improve their lives. One such group is Street Watch, an organization with a purpose and a social conscience; Currier writes:
I’ve watched many of these sweeps over the past year and a half as a volunteer participating in Street Watch, an initiative organized by the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Skid Row activist group Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), and carried out with volunteers from KTown for All, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and other organizations. Modeled on Copwatch and building on monitoring work done by LA CAN, Venice Community Housing, and other legal observers over the past several decades, Street Watch sends volunteers out to observe and record sweeps of homeless encampments around the city, looking for illegal seizure of property and other forms of harassment, and offering support to the people in the camps. The work differs from charity outreach in critical ways. As well as helping homeless people to prepare for sweeps and keep their belongings, volunteers provide know-your-rights information. Street Watch also tries to engage homeless Angelenos in the broader fight for housing in the city, offering them rides to public hearings, demonstrations, or organizing meetings. (In this, it also follows the example of LA CAN, which was founded on the principle of low-income downtown residents organizing themselves. The group says that its model “directly addresses the core problem of exclusion of low-income residents in public decision-making by recruiting and training members to be involved—whether invited or not—in all levels of decision-making impacting our communities.”) Street Watch is about connecting homelessness to the issues of over-policing, gentrification, rent control, and the fight for affordable housing—and asking the city to recognize the homeless as members of the community deserving of resources and support, rather than a problem to be swept out of view.
Again, viewing such things on on the material level, it is about allocation of money and resources.  If some of it would be spent on those on the bottom, how much better would be cities like L.A and countless other cities with large number of homeless people. Late capitalism and hyper-capitalism (a political economy of greed mixed with lack of caring) is responsible for the problem as we see it and know it, as is a reduction in affordable housing since the 1980s.

It would be a sign of hope and of humanity if these same people who once advocated for such a cruel and selfish political economy should now want to fix it. It is not too late, and it is within the realm of possibility. This would take, I believe, a change of heart, acknowledging the spiritual malaise in one’s own heart and how it manifests itself in the love of money. Such is an insatiable love, which more often than not opens the door to many, if not all, immoral and unethical actions, including viewing the least of these as not worthy. But, of course, such are. Perhaps more than we know.

If interested, here is my plan for decent affordable housing. Let me know if you think it has any merit.

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For more, go [here].

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