James Hilton wrote “Lost Horizon” in 1933 with the theme that World War I with the introduction of flying machines and the machine gun, the 1929 stock market crash, and the resulting Great Depression, would send the world into a disastrous maelstrom. So in order for a few to gain inner peace and a sense of purpose, Hilton created the mythical Shangri-La based in a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas. Hilton hoped that after the violence and poverty of that period, that Shangri-La would preserve the good and precious things and reveal them later to an exhausted world.
In the movie version made in 1937 the High Lama of the monastery describes to a refugee British diplomat the world of the early half of the 20th Century: “Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality.”
We could say the same thing about the world today. Think of Abu Ghraib, the World Trade Center, the Arab Spring, the ISIS beheadings and destruction of historical and religious monuments, the slums of Rio, Mumbai, Paris, London, and Los Angeles, the income inequality, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the millions of refugees and homeless on every continent except Antarctica. Wealthy hedge fund participants and managers from around the world are buying airstrips and farms in New Zealand so they have a place to run to when the world collapses. Notice I didn’t say “if.”
Pope Francis has approved plans for the Vatican to install toilets and showers for the homeless near St. Peter’s Square. He is also going to arrange free shaves and haircuts provided by volunteers from Rome barbershops. He has also picked out 10 Rome parishes where showers will be built for the homeless. But the Vatican will not use its bank to support these efforts. All equipment will come from charities. Evidently Pope Francis found out that the Philippines government rounded up 490 beggars and homeless people to hide during the Pope’s visit to Manila recently. The government put them in luxury accommodations for the length of the Pope’s stay! The homeless in the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco are not being treated in a similar fashion.
It seems that the alcoves and the four doorways of St. Mary’s Cathedral, the home church of the San Francisco Archbishop, often attract the homeless at night because they provide shelter from the elements. The church has plumbed each alcove so that every 30 to 60 minutes at night a cold shower runs for 75 seconds, showering very cold water on anyone sleeping in the alcoves. Some homeless bring umbrellas and other waterproof gear to protect them from hypothermia. A neighbor to the Cathedral has witnessed the drenching: “I was just shocked, one because it’s inhumane to treat people that way. The second is that we are in a terrible drought.” The director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homeless has added: “There’s not really another way to describe it. It’s certainly not formed on the basis of Catholic teachings.” The cold showers probably violate new California rules on water use, and were most likely installed illegally. The Archbishop put out a statement after a local TV news show revealed the shower system: “Catholic organizations in San Francisco serve thousands of homeless people every year, providing shelter, food, and critical services. That is the true picture of compassionate Catholic care.”
HUD reports that on an average night in the US we have over 600,000 homeless, with about 140,000 children and 54,000 male vets and 5,000 female vets among them. About 200,000 live in cars or under bridges. About two-thirds spend the night in shelters or short term transitional housing. In 2013 over 2.5 million children were homeless at any one time during the year. More than 90% of homeless women are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Between 20 to 25% of the homeless suffer from untreated severe mental illness. About 18 million Americans have severe mental problems. A 2014 survey of 187 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported that 24% make it a city-wide crime to beg in public, 18% make it a crime to sleep anywhere in public, 33% make it illegal to stand around or loiter in the city, 43% make it illegal to sleep in your car, and 53% make it illegal to sit or lay down in public places.
A plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty proclaims our desire to care and to provide for one another. It’s too bad we shatter that idea daily. Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” ends with these lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Oh, well, it’s a nice thought. We have a long history of treating “undesirables,” “bums,” “hoboes,” and the real “uglies” as criminals in this “exceptional” country. In the 19th Century many Southern cities had “sundown” laws. Blacks were arrested and fined if they went outside of their homes after sundown. Cities throughout the country at the same time had “ugly laws,” banning people from public sight if they were diseased or deformed in any manner. Carnivals took advantage of these laws by hiring the “uglies” for freak shows. John Steinbeck in his Great Depression book “The Grapes of Wrath” outlined the problems of “Okies” and other Midwesterners trying to escape the dust bowl. They were often prevented from crossing the borders of California and other states that could have food and shelter. Today the target of thousands of these laws is the homeless, often created by the failure to support affordable housing projects in the 1980’. During Ronald Reagan’s first term over $50 billion was cut from affordable housing programs. HUD estimates we need over seven million affordable apartments to solve the housing shortage now.
In the last 35 years cities and towns have criminalized basic human needs such as resting, standing, sleeping, sitting in the wrong places and for acts like begging, panhandling, and food sharing. California alone, known as a liberal state, has over 500 laws criminalizing the poor and the homeless. Just a comment: Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, could pay for the entire food stamp program for 47 million hungry Americans for one year from his assets—and have $2 billion left for pocket change. But why don’t the four Waltons pick up that cost? They would each have $15 billion left from screwing minimum wage workers. WalMart employees alone cost taxpayers $6.2 billion in public assistance.
With 38 million people, California has the most homeless at 176,000, followed by New York and Florida. That’s close to 20% of all homeless in the US. In a survey of 58 California cities researchers found over 500 anti-homeless laws on the books. All 58 had laws restricting daytime activities such as resting, standing, and sitting, 57 had laws on controlling nighttime activities such as sleeping, camping, and lodging, 53 banned begging and panhandling, and 12 restricted food-sharing. In other words, “do not feed the animals!” Many had laws that tried to eliminate “dumpster diving,” but many homeless would sneak into dumpsters, close the doors, and use flashlights to dine in secret. Sitting on sidewalks or park benches, or building steps is a popular “no-no.” Fines are levied for that crime. A homeless San Francisco man was sentenced to 30 days jail time for sitting on an egg crate—and faced another two years if caught sitting again! California, Oregon, and Colorado sympathetic politicians have tried to pass “Right To Rest” laws but have had great difficulty in getting enough sponsors. Oregon State Senator Chip Shields sponsored a law with this introduction: “People who are homeless not only struggle with the indignity of being treated like criminals because they have no place to eat, sit or sleep. This bill is about making sure everyone is treated humanely under the law.” The bill failed in committee.
Within the richest county in the country, 34 billionaires live in Santa Clara County where the nation’s 10th largest city San Jose (pop. 1 million) has the nation’s fifth largest homeless population after New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Diego. San Jose averages 5,000 homeless a night. Along Santa Clara County’s waterways there were 247 tent cities containing over 2,300 homeless until just three months ago. The largest of the tent cities was called The Jungle, which housed between 200 and 300 homeless. The city fathers decided that The Jungle had become a hazardous environmental mess. The city had provided three port-a-potties during the day and had handed out portable sanitary bags for the residents to use during the night. Those bags of human waste were then placed in the garbage and trash in the morning. Not a pretty picture. The city brought trucks to the Jungle, cleared out the tents and shelters, and forced all to move to other areas. The city had spent $4 million over 18 months in helping to maintain the Jungle. (A few of the 34 billionaires in Silicon Valley made as much as $4 million in one day’s hard work. Remember when Loretta Helmsley, known as ”The Bitch of New York’s Broadway,” said prophetically: “only the poor pay taxes?” She was finally convicted of failure to pay taxes. But her words are immortal.) In Palo Alto, another city in the very rich Santa Clara Valley, over 90% of the homeless lack shelter of any kind. Palo Alto provides 12 beds for 167 homeless each night. Cities make it very interesting for the homeless sleeping in cars. Most California cities have laws preventing parking in commercial areas between 2 to 5 a.m. If discovered, illegally parked the vehicles are often impounded, thus removing the home. A homeless advocate says: “Americans sleeping in their cars literally have nowhere to go.” A federal appeals court in Los Angeles recently ended a ban on living in cars for the LA area only.
Honolulu, Hawaii has a homeless problem. Up 32% in five years. The city manager says the city is confiscating 10 tons of homeless property every week. That seems like a lot of property from poor people. The mayor says: “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city.” So Honolulu has closed parks at night and banned tents and shabby shelters in public spaces. The state has 6,335 homeless in a state of 1.4 million, the second highest proportion of homeless in the nation. The warm climate is attractive. The Honolulu Council is debating ordinances that would prevent sitting, resting, sleeping on sidewalks in public spaces, and an ordinance containing $1,000 fines or 30 days in jail for defecating or urinating in public. I bet the jails will be filled. The Council also approved a $47 million program to create low-cost housing. That will be interesting in a state that has the second highest-cost housing in the country.
Maybe Las Cruces, N.M. has an answer in handling the homeless. Las Cruces can be very cold in winter and hot as hell in summer, but with $45,000 from the state, the city has established a safe place for the homeless on city property. The camp was started four years ago as temporary shelter. It now has elevated sites for tents, a guard house, and is surrounded by a wire fence. It has portable toilets, restrooms and hot showers, and charities have set up a “strip mall” of social services on site. The mall has a medical clinic and a soup kitchen. Social service officers try to connect residents to jobs, housing, and veterans programs. About 25% of the residents are military vets. Alcohol, guns and abusive language are not allowed. Each resident must put in six hours of public service per week. A resident who had traveled the country extensively said, “It’s the first place I’ve felt human.” How about that. That must be a good feeling. We have spent billions on developing the F-35 fighter that still can’t fly in the rain or drop bombs. For what we have spent on the F-35 we could buy every homeless person a $600,000 home. The military-industrial complex certainly welcomes your dollars.
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