Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The United Tent Cities of America



I viscerally remember a particular protest I participated in with Portland Tenants United that involved using tents as a symbol of the impending homelessness that will result if the landlords keep on raising the rent the way they've been doing. It's a common, useful symbol, that communicates well in a picture, a tent. But there was that one protest when a bunch of actually homeless teenagers asked us, "what are you going to do with those tents when you're done?"

If one of the tents had been mine, I probably would have just given it to the kids who asked about it. I didn't see anyone giving them one of the tents, though. After all, each of them was probably owned by a hard-working tenant, there to protest against landlords and rent hikes. It probably cost $80 or so and was used for camping with the kids and going to festivals, when it wasn't being used to protest landlords in downtown Portland. Most working folks scraping by to pay the rent don't make $80 donations to people on the streets, so I suppose it's understandable if no one gave away their tent that day.

Last weekend I heard on NPR the recently-updated statistic that there are about 60,000 people homeless, mostly living on the streets, unsheltered, in Los Angeles County, and almost 1,000 of them were found dead on those very streets last year, in 2018. It's a shocking thing to hear, partially perhaps because it's such a large, round number, which maybe gives it more resonance. Altogether we can say that there are untold thousands of people dying on the streets every year in the US, and literally the majority of the rest of the population is so squeezed by the cost of housing and other economic factors, that they can't afford to help. They have no savings, only debt. 4 in 10 people in the US can't afford an unexpected expense of any kind if it's greater than $400, according to a recent study. Many people are living in such cramped conditions that having one's own bedroom is increasingly becoming a middle-class fantasy.

In the suburb I grew up in, no one was homeless. Tents were strictly for camping, cars were for transportation -- and maybe sleeping in if you got caught in a blizzard or something. When my family made trips into nearby New York City and I saw people living in cardboard boxes beneath bridges and such, to me it was like going to Mars. A completely different reality. These grey, often bearded faces of ruined human beings, shivering, abandoned, waiting to die, it appeared to me.

They seemed like a different species to my clean-cut suburban eyes. If it weren't for the fact that as a young adult I found myself briefly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, I might still have that alienated orientation towards these castaways that can be found in every American city.

I was staying for a while in a tent on a very steep hillside near a park. It was a thickly-wooded hillside that no one used, but part-way down it there was a flat area just big enough for a very small tent. I set up a tent and hid it with a tarp and leaves and branches and such. No running water or electricity, but it was a dry, shaded place to camp. Until the police, or whoever, found it, and destroyed my camp, cutting lots of bushes and trees down in the process.

That night, it rained. I don't remember what I might have tried to rig up to sleep under or on top of that night, but whatever it was, it wasn't waterproof. The rain drenched me completely, until I was shivering, and probably hyperventilating. To survive the night, I spent hours awake, miserable, sitting in a 24-hour donut shop until the sun rose.

Just going through that experience for one night was a revelation. Until that night, being homeless sucked. I didn't care so much about not having electricity, but I was a big fan of daily showers, and that was not happening. But it had otherwise up til then been more or less an adventure. After that night it no longer was. Death suddenly became something easy to imagine. Anyone, at any age, can die of hypothermia in such a situation. And, as these recent statistics attest, many do.

I don't know how many other people who grew up in the suburbs end up having such experiences. I don't know how many of them can relate to these completely disenfranchised people among us, beneath us, at our feet, as fully human. Regardless of whether they can or not, it seems clear to me that this society is at a breaking point. Any semblance of life as usual can't continue while thousands of skeletal life forms are dying on the streets around you.

Listening to the tepid solutions being offered by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Oregon Governor Kate Brown or any of the presidential candidates running on the Democratic ticket -- all of which is getting lots of media attention lately -- we can be certain the crisis will only worsen. Building new housing and subsidizing rent for tenants in need are fine, but neither of these popular strategies challenge the profits of the real estate speculators, the developers, the landlord class so influential in so much of local, state and federal politics throughout the US.

What is abundantly obvious if you have any familiarity with the housing market in this country is leaving things to the free market has been an unmitigated disaster. Yet the only answer from the landlord lobby is more of the same.

It would be completely impossible to build enough new housing to build our way out of this problem. Regulation is obviously necessary. Democratic – that is, government -- control over the cost of housing, over what landlords can charge for rent. The kind of regulation that will profoundly affect the profit margin of the real estate speculators, the vulture capitalists in control of so much of our politics. I'm talking not about a rent freeze, but about slashing rents to a fraction of what they have become over the past few decades of free market insanity. What's needed is the kind of regulation that no one is talking about. For that kind of regulation, we'll need to have a mass movement that shuts the country down. Regardless of what the more hopeful voices in the liberal media and the Democratic Party might want us to believe.

Until then, keep the morgues cold, more bodies will be coming.

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