Before this month’s fires in California, there were 134,000 homeless in this state, about 25% of the total number of homeless in the entire nation. Now that the town of Paradise has been destroyed and left 27,000 former residents of that town newly homeless, California’s total number of homeless increases by 20% to 161,000.
While it’s true that many of those who lost homes in Paradise have resources, money, insurance, and jobs, and will be able to move or rebuild, many were also poor people living in one of the few places in California where it was still inexpensive to live. It’s not clear where many will go, in a state where the housing crisis was already acute before this historically devastating fire in Paradise. As reported in the New York Times, —-
In a state already suffering an acute housing shortage, the fire that swept through the town of Paradise and neighboring hamlets has once again laid bare one of California’s biggest vulnerabilities: With each disaster — wildfire, mudslide or earthquake — there are thousands of people who cannot find homes in a market that for years has had very little vacancy.
There have been 81,000 people evacuated from the fire zones, all in need of temporary housing. About 14,000 homes have been destroyed in Paradise, and 430 in the Southern California fires, and those homes will take a while to replace — and some will not be rebuilt. Where will the newly homeless live? Some say that FEMA should provide trailers for people to live in until their homes are rebuilt:
“There is no way that the current housing stock can accommodate the people displaced by the fire,” Casey Hatcher, the spokeswoman for Butte County, where Paradise and surrounding towns ravaged by the fire are located. “We recognize that it’s going to be some time before people rebuild, and there is an extremely large housing need.”
One possible solution, she said, would be for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to provide trailers that people could live in while their homes were being rebuilt.
Many fire evacuees and those who’ve lost homes in Paradise, have set up tents at the Walmart in Chico, but this tent city is being closed down, as reported in this East Bay Times article, where it’s stated that:
Hundreds of people displaced by the Camp Fire camping outside of the Chico Walmart are being asked to leave by Sunday — and many of them are unsure of where they will go next.
There are now problems occuring in the Walmart camp, that bear resemblance to some of the problems that plague homeless camps generally, such as people finding it difficult to find alternate shelter because they have a pet, or not wanting to stay in standard shelters because of health concerns, or problems with criminals in the camp stealing from some of the homeless:
After hearing in the early afternoon about the coming closure, Magalia resident Michael Crowder said he would probably find another parking lot to stay in. Crowder explained that he didn’t know of an evacuation center that would accept his 10-year-old pitbull. He added that he was worried about catching an illness like the norovirus which is going around some of the local shelters. Crowder was sitting outside of a tent with fellow Magalia resident Terry Gardey, a friend from church…’s gotten super bad the past two nights,” Whitehurst said, while keeping an eye on a neighbor’s tent. “There’s tons and tons of people now. Now things are getting stolen out of tents. People are stealing, looting out of the tents.”.
Some say that the refugees from the Paradise Fire will set off a migrant crisis similar to that which occurred during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s:
Local officials warned the destruction from the Camp Fire could set off a wave of refugee migration akin to a smaller version of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
“Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County,” Mayer said. “I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.”
The fire-propelled increase in the number of homeless in Butte County in particular, is leading to tensions between those who were already homeless, and the newly homeless, as described in this New York Times article.
But one of the biggest barriers to ending homelessness in Butte County is a dire shortage of available, affordable rental housing……Before the Camp Fire, the county had a housing vacancy rate of just 1 to 2 percent, much lower than the 2 to 5 percent needed in most healthy housing markets, according to Jennifer Griggs, the Continuum of Care coordinator. After the fire, “not only did all of that vacancy rate get swooped up right away, but now it’s even more of a challenge to find any type of housing for anybody, regardless of their housing status prior,” she said. ….
We know we’re already short shelter beds, but shelter beds are a vehicle through which you get people into permanent housing,” Ms. Cootsona added. “You can build more shelter beds, but if there’s no path out, then that is just a Band-Aid.”
One man named Jaime who lost his home in the Camp Fire, said that the experience of losing his home gave him more empathy for and understanding of the plight of the homeless, as described in this article in the LA Times. One would expect this, however Jaime’s assertion that “no one ends up sleeping under an overpass by choice” is not really true. Anyone who’s followed the issues about homelessness, and read their share of articles on the matter, has certainly read many articles which state that upon being offered shelter, many homeless people prefer to stay in their tents, on a sidewalk or under an overpass. When they’ve made such a decision, then their living under an overpass is clearly a choice. Whitewashing the entire phenomenon of homelessness and trying to pretend that people dont’ end up in this situation due to a number of factors, many of these being a result of their bad decisions, is not helpful in terms of coming up with viable solutions.
This article is a part of a longer article about Court Cases on Homeless Issues. I wanted to highlight the court case Martin vs Boise, because it’s drawing great attention at this point in time, and unfortunately, many homeless, homeless advocates, as well as attorneys for the homeless, are using (or rather, abusing) this case in order to try to bully cities and prevent them from being able to remove problematic illegal camps in a timely way.
Attorneys in particular should know very well that this case is unlikely to apply to many cities, particularly not cities in the Bay Area which have many homeless, and where city leaders have had to become well informed on legal issues pertaining to homelessness for some time now.
Yet in spite of the fact that attorneys should easily be able to understand the narrow scope of this case and know that it’s unlikely to apply to a city such as Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley or Oakland, attorneys for the homeless are nevertheless trying to sue cities in cases without merit, and claim that this case prohibits cities from removing a problematic illegal camp, or perhaps, any illegal camp at all.
Let’s take a closer look and see what this case is really about, and why it is very unlikely to apply to most cities which have a significant homeless issue.
Civil Right to Sleep in Public Places
A recent decision in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, as described in this New York Times article, has underscored the legal finding I mention in my longer article on Court Cases relating to homelessness, where it is considered unconstitutional to prohibit people sleeping outdoors if there is no indoors shelter available for them:
In their summary of the opinion, the judges wrote,
“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
The full opinion can be seen in the court document here:
A judge in the Cinncinnati area has used precisely the consequences of this law — that sleeping in public places CAN be prohibited if there is adequate shelter space available — to prohibit all homeless camps in Hamilton County Ohio, as described in this article.
Cities like Seattle which do not have an outright ban on sleeping in public places (to my knowledge, very few cities actually have such a prohibition, because prior to this ruling, such a stance was generally known by city governments to be unconstitutional) are apparently unaffected by this ruling, as stated in this article in the SEattle Times.
The city of Seattle will continue to enforce laws that prohibit people from camping or sleeping outdoors under certain circumstances. City officials say that because Seattle does not have an outright ban on these activities, Seattle is not affected by the court’s decision.
A clear description of the significance of Martin vs Boise can be found on the website of the Phillips Burgess Law firm, here — and their elaboration as follows helps clarify:
The City of Boise, ID had a total and complete prohibition on camping anywhere in public places. Relevantly, the “Camping Ordinance” (Boise City Code § 9-10-02)makes it a misdemeanor to use “any of the streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places as a camping place at any time.” (Emphasis added)
Essentially, the government is prohibited from imposing criminal penalties on people for “being in a condition [they] are powerless to change.” For example, it would be unconstitutional for someone to be incarcerated or fined for having a common cold. As a result, the court found that the City’s unconditional ban on people sleeping on public property unconstitutionally penalized people for being in a situation they could not immediately control.
The court is clear that its opinion is narrow; it is not intended to command cities to provide sufficient shelter or allow people to occupy public spaces whenever they please. In a footnote, the court explains that an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at specific times or locations might be constitutional. However, a violation of someone’s Eight Amendment rights occurs when, as with the City ordinances at issue here, the government creates an unlimited prohibition against sleeping on public property. When there is no option for sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize people for sleeping outdoors on public property without exception.
From this description it should be very clearthat Martin vs Boise will not apply in any situation where there is not a complete and total prohibition on camping in any public place — something which is not found in any California city that I know of, and certainly not in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco.
Many advocates of the homeless are eager to test the consequences of Martin Vs Boise in their local courts, to see if they can use this case to stop cities from removing homeless camps. And many of their attempts to sue cities for trying to clear out nuisance camps, will be disingenuous and amount to bullying the city, because attorneys should fully well understand why, as described above by the Phillips Burgess Law Firm, Martin vs Boise does not apply to the situations they are suing over. For instance, in this article, the city attorney in Puyallup WA said:
City attorney Joseph Beck said the Martin v. Boise ruling has no direct impact on the city of Puyallup, which does not have a “no-camping” ordinance like the city of Boise.
“We don’t have the same kind of facts. We don’t have the same kind of codes, the same kind of enforcement policies,” Beck said. “They’re factually distinguishable.”
Beck added that the city is already in compliance with the ruling.
“The Ninth Circuit decision was not a surprise, and we have been operating and advising the city in compliance with that decision for the last two years,” he said.
Nevertheless, the bullying of cities by homeless advocates, attempting to use Martin vs Boise as a club, will likely increase. For instance, this week attorneys representing homeless in Oakland have sued the city to try to keep it from removing a problematic homeless camp, as described in this article. The case is summed up this way:
The case is one of the first legal tests to see just how far judges might go in interpreting the recent Martin v. Boise decision in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that laws criminalizing homelessness are unconstitutional if a city isn’t offering adequate shelter.
“The main thrust is under the Martin v. Boise case,” Joshua Piovia-Scott told Judge Gilliam during today’s hearing. He said there are currently about 300 to 350 shelter beds available in Oakland while there are about 1,902 unhoused people.
Though it’s possible some judges may use Martin vs Boise to temporarily stop cities from clearing out homeless camps, the facts of that case really dont’ apply to situations like that in Oakland or most other cities which have no blanket prohibition on camping in public places, but which seek to remove specific camps. I doubt very much that most courts would interpret Martin vs Boise in this way, as this reading would leave cities with no power to abate large scale nuisance in their cities. To use the case to prohibit camp removals would also show a lack of ability to distinguish between sleeping overnight in public areas, versus setting up long term permanent camps on public property.
UPDATE November 29 2018
As I expected, the judge in the Oakland case where homeless advocates were trying to block the city from evicting a homeless camp on city property, ruled in favor of the city.
Judge Gilliam ruled that the city can in fact remove the camp, provided that they provide shelter for those people in the camp. This is an important ruling because it finally makes it clear that homeless people will not be allowed to refuse city shelter and camp wherever they like. Many homeless have been making the entitled argument for some time now that they have this right — to just camp wherever — because they prefer their tent to city shelters, because as homeless they have “rights” to public spaces. This ruling makes it very clear that they have no such fundamental rights to remain (essentially permanently, 24/7/365) in public spaces, and that the claims of the homeless in this regard are completely illegitimate.
Significantly, Judge Gilliam stated that:
“Martin does not establish a constitutional right to occupy public property indefinitely,” Gilliam wrote in his decision.
Further aspects of the ruling:
Gilliam also accepted the city’s argument that by shuttering the camp, it isn’t imposing any criminal penalties on the homeless residents. The campers argued the opposite, saying that the order to leave the property would ultimately be enforced with the threat of arrest and citation for trespassing, therefore they were being criminalized due to their homeless condition.
Plaintiffs further argued that the city-owned lot they occupied has been vacant for over ten years and is akin to a public park. Gilliam rejected the notion, saying in court that the city’s intended use of the lot is irrelevant.
As to why they believed their eviction would also be a violation of the 14th Amendment, the camp residents argued that the city has sometimes confiscated and thrown away people’s property when closing camps.
But Gilliam found that Oakland’s existing policies and procedures are fair. The city notifies homeless camp residents at least 72 hours in advance of closing a site, and any belongings left behind that are not obviously trash or hazards are stored by the city so owners can recover them.
Judge Gilliam, in distinguishing this case from Martin vs Boise, made the obvious point that “Plaintiffs are not faced with punishment for acts inherent to their unhoused status that they cannot control. Nor are Plaintiffs unable to obtain shelter outside of Dignity Village, based on the City’s commitments in its papers and at the hearing”
He also recognized that allowing the camp to remain in place, would create “serious liability exposure for the city”, something many of us can easily see. I mean this is just a common sense matter.
Many of us realized this was the only logical possibility, because any other ruling/decision would essentially take away a city’s ability to control its own public spaces, and leave cities helpless as public areas were commandeered and expropriated by homeless people setting up camps in them.
Judge Gilliam favored the homeless and their advocates in his ruling a little more than I would have expected, though, in that rather than ruling that there is a distinction between the right to sleep in public spaces, and the setting up of permanent camps, he ruled that the city can remove this camp if it provides alternate shelter for these individuals. Such a ruling is overly burdensome on cities which have many more homeless than they can shelter. However, particularly given that many shelters are set up to operate night by night, it should not be difficult to provide one night of shelter for those at camps the city seeks to remove, and then to leave them to put in some effort to make repeat applications to stay at that shelter for subsequent nights…or simply sleep in public spaces, as the constitution permits them to do, without setting up a permanent camp.
Homeless advocates in Oakland are saying they will continue fighting against the city’s evictions of homeless camps. They claim in this video that there are 14,000 homeless people in Oakland (far more than the official count ), and claim that the city doesn’t really intend to provide shelter for the residents of camps they evict, so that they believe the court should not allow the city to evict the camps. They say they will continue to litigate their case in court and force the city to follow required policy, and to offer shelter to all evictees. If the city is smart and offers evictees one night of shelter only, and gives them the burden of making effort to show up early and stand in line and apply for shelter on subsequent nights, then this will not be overly burdensome, but it’s still not a burden I believe is fair to put on the city.
I think at some point, perhaps not in Oakland but in some city where this same issue arises in court, cities need to make the valid point that the responsibility for housing the homeless, cannot be imposed on individual cities, as seems to be the current de facto policy. Just as we would not insist that any one city provide health insurance or health care to thousands of people who decided to pour into that city and demand it, shelter for the homeless is really a state and federal issue, not a municipal one, and this should be seen clearly when we realize that some cities are far more burdened by homelessness than others, as are some states. California has over 25% of all the homeless in the entire nation. Particularly given the fact that housing in coastal California tends to be twice as expensive as in most other areas of the US, it makes no sense for the state of California, or coastal cities, to be forced to shelter or house individuals who could be sheltered or housed for much less in other parts of the nation.
UPDATE December 6 2018
The city of Oakland removed the encampment, as reported in this article. The city offered shelter to all those who would be evicted, and it’s possible that some of the shelter they offered to the homeless there, was in another city, Alameda, as the attorney for the homeless stated:
The city offered people in the encampment shelter beds, and to take them to the shelters and store their belongings. Joshua Piovia-Scott, their attorney, said the shelter the city offered was in Alameda, and not adequate for the residents.
This is interesting, and brings up the question that many of us have had about how the courts will view any one city’s obligation to itself provide all the services and shelter needed by anyone who happens to show up homeless within the perimeters of that city and demand housing or shelter there. As many observers of the homeless crisis have pointed out many times, it does not make sense to try to solve this issue city by city, and therefore, we would hope that courts, understanding this, would not require cities to shelter all homeless who arrive at their city, within that city, but could direct them to shelters wherever they were available in that region. Or even, possibly, beyond the immediate region, and in other states, which would really be the best way to work on this issue at a federal level.
The Misunderstandings Continue
In the December 2018 issue of “Street Spirit”, the newspaper that homeless individuals sell on East Bay streets, there’s an article pertaining to Caltrans and the Martin vs Boise decision, in which the author describes Caltrans as “the largest and most high-profile evictor of homeless encampments in California”, and asks Caltrans how their evictions of camps will be effected by Martin vs Boise.
Caltrans replies that they are aware of the Martin case, but that their focus is safety, and that “homeless encampments in the state right of way have the potential to pose a public health and safety risk for the homeless, our workers and the public.” Though homeless have a “right to sleep in public places”, when there is no other shelter available, the Martin case’s narrow ruling did not investigate a related issue, which is — that some public spaces are likely much more appropriate for “sleeping” (as opposed to 24/7 expropriation as a campground) than others — some will be inherently more dangerous to human safety. Some spaces will in and of themselves pose dangers, for instance a homeless person trying to set up a tent mere feet away from a highway, or near a steep drop. As well, what campers do in their campsites, where they do or don’t put their garbage, food, and human waste — can create dangers, which the city or government agency must abate.
We should all be paying for homeless services, homeless housing, and affordable housing. But instead, what I see happening in our nation, is that due in part to the fact that some areas have many more homeless than others, and also because many municipalities are trying to solve this problem at the local level, we aren’t all paying equally for helping the homeless. Some of us are ending up paying much more than others.
One of the ways I read Measure O and Measure P, (which were 2 measures on the November 2018 ballot in Berkeley ) as well as many other efforts by the City of Berkeley to provide more services and opportunities for homeless and low income persons, is that the City of Berkeley is trying to do and pay for things that really should be done and paid for by the county, state, or federal government. So, to oversimplify it, when “mean Republicans” take things away from people and/or refuse to provide/pay for help for those who do need help and should be provided shelter or housing subsidies, or other services, at the federal level, Berkeley and like cities step in and try to get their residents to pay for this stuff instead, at the municipal level.
So, when federal Republican lawmakers taketh away, behold, Berkeley taxeth and giveth back.
This formula is problematic in many ways.
Many of us feel angered at the way we’re preyed upon as “piggy banks”. Estimates vary on how much each homeowner household will pay for Measures O and P…some have estimated $100 a year, others say $600 a year.
There are many things wrong with the system of people paying for city services with property taxes. One of the biggest problems with this, is that people are paying very different and unequal amounts, for the very same services. Someone who bought their home 30 or 40 years ago in Berkeley, might be paying as little as $600 a year total in property taxes. Others, who bought recently, might be paying $15,000 a year, for the very same services. Yet they are not receiving over 10 times the value in city services. They are just paying more because their home cost more when they bought. So in addition to paying more in mortgage expense, they have higher property taxes. Then also, renters, particularly those renting in single family homes or small buildings, are generally not paying a similar rate towards property tax, as are owners. An average couple living in a 2-bedroom house in Berkeley may be paying $1000 a month in property tax, meaning about $500 each per month. So this comes to $500 in property tax cost per bedroom. Yet if one of those rooms goes to a renter, renting out a bedroom in such a home, that person is unlikely to be paying (out of their total rent) $500 a month towards property tax. (If you thought your rent was high now, wait until you are actually paying your fair portion of the owners’ property tax….)
Nor are any other renters in any other type of building likely to pay a proportionately similar amount to the city, as owners pay in property tax. So there’s a basic unfairness built into this system, whereby there are widely unequal payments being made for essentially the same city services. You could argue actually that those who use services more, often pay less, since the city of Berkeley pays for legal aid for tenants (but not for property owners) and pays for help for homeless, programs for low-income people, and more — lots of programs that an average homeowner is not going to benefit from.
If you’re upset at having to pay this extra amount in taxes, short of moving out of the city, there are not many things that can be done to save you this extra tax cost. However, a friend reminds me that sometimes there are creative ways to transfer the cost back to the city. He lives in a different city and also ended up with extra taxes based on an election measure he’d voted against. He set things right via the garbage. Eg, “garbage activism”.
Take a look at City of Berkeley monthly refuse collection rates.
If you have any size trash container bigger than 13 gallons, you qualify for his method of returning costs to the city. Say your garbage can is 20 gallons in size, and you calculate you’ll be paying $400 a year more for property taxes based on Measure O and P. You have the option of “garbage activism” .
If you reduce your garbage container size from 20 gallons, to a 13 gallon can, then this would reduce your garbage collection costs by $26.25 – $17.09 = $9.16/month, or $109 a year.
If you reduce your garbage container size from 32 gallon to 13 gallon size, then you can reduce your monthly costs by $42.98 – $17.09 = $25.89, for an annual savings of $310.
And similarly if you scale down from larger cans.
You then fill up your own 13 gallon can with your garbage, and any extra garbage that doesn’t fit in your 13 gallon can, you place inside city garbage cans such as those found along commerical districts, so that the city, rather than you, are paying for the cost of the additional garbage pickup.
In some locales, placing “household garbage” in a city garbage can isn’t allowed. However, the city garbage cans in Berkeley dont’ have such a statement on them, and if they did, homeless persons who regularly place their “household garbage” in them would be constantly in violation of the law.
As well, one might point out that (1) camping on a sidewalk isn’t legal, particularly doing this for over a year, (2) people camping on sidewalks are receiving quite a number of city services at no cost at all, including garbage pickup, because no homeless camp in this area charges its residents for garbage collection. Members just put their trash in the nearest city trash cans. By putting your own garbage in the city garbage cans instead of paying to dispose of it in your own garbage can, you’d simply be following this fine example.
Though some might not realize it, there have been “homeless” people in America since before the founding of the nation. As Kenneth Kusmer writes in his book, “Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History”,
As early as 1640, “vagrant persons” were listed among the social outcasts that peace officers in Boston were charged with apprehending.
Around the time of the American Revolution, the number of homeless dramatically increased, and “By the time of the depression in 1857, every substantial urban center was grappling with throngs of homeless persons.” Though there were certainly also wandering beggars in Europe, the predominance of Protestantism in the colonies, and its emphasis on the importance of work, led to a less tolerant view of vagrants in the colonies. For instance, as Kusmer writes,
“The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay drew sharp distinctions among different types of destitute persons…the poor, sick, those unable to care for themselves due to age or debility were considered part of the community…the wandering poor, however, were different. They had broken the bonds of community and rejected the idea of diligently working in a calling. As Governor John Endicott said to the Massachusetts Bay Company, “Noe idle drone bee permitted to live amongst us.”
In fact, as Todd DePastino wrote in his history of homelessness in the nation, “Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America“, British America was in a sense founded as a refuge from and solution to the homeless crisis of Tudor and Stuart England (pg 6). So America was predisposed from the get-go to be hostile to vagrants and homeless tramps.
Ultimately, it would be just this wandering nature and/or rejection of the value of consistent, diligent work, as well as rejection of standard family life, which would set apart the culture of the hobo and tramp from that of mainstream America, and ultimately lead Americans to view the hobo culture as a threat that must be suppressed. Early vagrancy statutes functioned as a way of punishing behavior viewed as deviant, and the Calvinistic values of early colonies implied that no behavior was considered more alien to a well-ordered community than idleness.
It was the Civil War that really changed the phenomenon of vagrancy and homelessness, as the war gave large numbers of men their first chance to use the railroad. The war also introduced the practice of small groups of men going on foraging expeditions, a practice that would also become part of tramping. The words “tramp” and “bum” can be traced to the Civil War era. Then as now, a number of those who served in the war came out with more than physical scars, and Kusmer writes that a considerable number of former soldiers descended into vagrancy or a life of petty crime. As well, the male cameraderie of the tramp life was viewed as a mass rebellion against domestic life. By 1870, a vertiable “tramp crisis” existed, which was widely despised. As Kusmer writes, (pg 43), “It was impossible to overstate the hostility of the educated public to the tramps in the 1870’s and 1880’s.” However, there was also a growing romance to the hobo culture, which in the view of some, was most eloquently represented by the person and poetry of Walt Whitman, particularly in his poem, “Open Road”:
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of myself of the holds that would hold me.
There was indeed a “romance” of the hobo and tramp, which was so strong that it really has continued to be felt even long after the demise of the hobo. It continued on with the Beat poets, in Kerouac’s “On the Road” and “Dharma Bums“, and continues still to appeal to youthful wanderers…something about America’s vastness and the landscapes of open roads, which call our hearts to the song of the wanderer and adventurer.
Bill Aspinwall, a tramp of the late 19th century, represented himself as Whitmanesque, and stated that “I often think that God intended man to live as the Indians used to.” He saw the tramp life as a healthy alternative to industrial civilization.
Another phenomenon contributed to the “tramp army” that grew as of the mid-19th century, and this was the beginning of “unemployment” in the nation. Prior to the mid 19th century, unemployment as such was a much rarer phenomenon, since prior to that time, most heads of household were self-employed, for instance as farmers or tradesmen. There was also a greater intimacy between employer and employee prior to the mid 19th century, before widespread industrialization, so that workers protected employees. This changed with the growth of industry as places of employment became depersonalized. In fact, as DePastino writes (pg 66) the late 19th century labor markets were considered “extraordinarily volatile”, full of boom-and-bust cycles, that virtually compelled workers to be unemployed and then, to have to travel for employment.
The rise of hoboes and tramping was tied to the need to travel to find work, often seasonal. The author Jack London was one of those who traveled to find work, and may have been one of those who sang the song, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum“, written by Harry McClintock in 1928.
Rejoice and be glad for the Springtime has come We can throw down our shovels and go on the bum Hallelujah, I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again The Springtime has come and I’m just out of jail Without any money, without any bail Hallelujah, I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again
London too saw romance in the hobo culture, writing that hoboes were “primordial noble men…lustfully roving and conquering through sheer superiority and strength.”
McClintock also wrote the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain“, which was another expression of the “romance” of the hobo and tramp.
One evening as the sun went down And the jungle fires were burning, Down the track came a hobo hiking, And he said, “Boys, I’m not turning I’m headed for a land that’s far away Besides the crystal fountains So come with me, we’ll go and see The Big Rock Candy Mountains
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, There’s a land that’s fair and bright, Where the handouts grow on bushes And you sleep out every night. Where the boxcars all are empty And the sun shines every day And the birds and the bees And the cigarette trees The lemonade springs Where the bluebird sings In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
In his book Citizen Hobo, DePastino repeatedly comments about the racial aspects of early homelessness, pointing out that the hobo culture was primarily a culture of white men. He describes it as an arena of “white male privilege“, but I think this is a mischaracterization, typical of the superficiality of identity politics, that misses a deeper point. Namely that the world of the hobo was the expression of a particular ethnic cultural group, and, for good or ill, this happened to be males of Western European origin. Individuals from other ethnic or national origins, (even those from Southern or Eastern Europe) would not be likely to have the same feelings, attitudes, and cultural viewpoints, indeed the same kind of song and “romance” about the vagrant life, as did males of West European origin, who were formed by these cultural elements expressed by Whitman, and McClintock, as well as other poets of the future, like the Beats and Woody Guthrie.
To be sure, there was racial and gender prejudice involved in the hobo and tramp community. However, it’s unlikely that immigrants from Mexico, China or the Phillipines, or women, or blacks recently freed from slavery, would have had just the same kind of viewpoint and cultural expressions (songs, poetry, romanticization) of the tramp life, as did males of European origin. For instance, we would not expect that a Filipino, Japanese or Mexican immigrant, would have created a song like “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, nor would we expect that individuals from very different cultural backgrounds would have drawn the same inspiration from Walt Whitman’s poetry or the idea of the “romance of the open road” as did men who came from that same European (Western European ) cultural formation. We would well expect that different ethnic groups would have their own unique songs of the road and ways of experiencing being migrant workers or vagrants in America. So I think rather than critiquing the hobo culture as an arena of “white male privilege”, which is (eg, see Jordan Peterson) arguably a racist phrase, it makes sense to honor the particular cultural expression that it gave rise to — which has since expanded and become informed by different cultural streams and ethnicities.
One of the differences between “native” hoboes and other European immigrant migrant workers, was that the immigrants were more tightly connected to job and family, something which drew scorn from the hoboes, who called them “scissorbills” (pg 125 DePastino) and considered them as “owned by their jobs”. The hobo subculture was one that highly valued freedom from the servitude to employers and work.
There was doubtless more ethnic variation among hoboes, than gender diversity. The world of the hobo was overwhelmingly a man’s world, and the very few women present in the hobo world were generally not traveling alone, but with a family, as in this photo of a hobo family taken in 1939.
The world of homelessness in all its forms, has doubtless always been more difficult and more dangerous for women. Though some modern women like to go adventuring on “road trips”, that is generally done from the safety of one’s own vehicle, not as someone without any belongings but a backpack, mercilessly exposed to the elements and possible predation or crimes by other hoboes, tramps, or bums — among whom there have always been a number of criminals. As well, women just don’t seem to experience domestic life and routine employment as oppressing, much less emasculating, in the way that many men do. In his book American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders, author Richard Grant talks about the strong pull he felt towards becoming a lifelong nomad, giving up most all possessions and sleeping in cheap hotels or most any vehicle he found himself traveling in. He felt he had “unlocked the secret of human freedom”, as had others who had “abandoned sedentary civilization for the nomadic life”, and these were most all men. He also discovered that this type of person was more prevalent in the American West than anywhere else, and indeed this connects to the mythos of this land, as well as the vast, open landscape of the West.
The hobo was also a relic of the frontiersman, the native American pioneer adventurer, drawn westward for bold adventure. DePastino (pg 128) writes that he was a “belated frontiersman, a frontiersman at a time and in a place where the frontier is passing or no longer exists…a relic from a world that had once rewarded freewheeling masculinity.” We can see something of the same out-of-place lifestyle, when we see and hear the expressions of modern-day homeless persons, who set up often elaborate tent camps or even elaborate plywood shelters in the middle of cities, or in forests adjacent to cities, clearly engaging in nothing less than an elaborate homesteading attempt, in areas which for well over a hundred years, have been privately or corporately owned and not permitted homesteading.
Time for some terminology. There were 3 terms that referred to homeless in these early years of this phenomenon: hobo, tramp, and bum. This is the way these were defined (pg 87, Nels Anderson book) :
(1) A hobo is a migratory worker. (2) A tramp is a migratory non-worker. (3) A bum is a stationary non-worker.
The “hobo” was considered the top of the hierarchy, and hoboes looked down on those who did not work, and those who did not move. In fact, hoboes, in a sense the “original” homeless, had great contempt for a number of things that we would nowadays consider almost ubiquitous in the “culture” of homelessness: things such as lack of interest in work, willingness to beg for support, tendency to stay in one place rather than travel, inability to keep oneself clean and to keep one’s camp clean. As Nels Anderson wrote in his book “The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless man“, (pg 18) ” The hobo has established the habit of keeping his clothes and his person clean.”
These things were in direct contrast to the values of the original hobo culture. In fact, there were few things that a hobo found as contemptible as begging, as ANderson says on pg 42: “An able-bodied man who begs when broke is beneath contempt…this is considered despicable.” I find this ironic, given that many prominent voices in the “homeless community” today, have essentially taken begging to a large scale, and are not only begging from various city governments, but demanding to be given a great deal, including expensive forms of housing, without doing any work.
Things that the hoboes did value, included storytelling. “The art of telling a story is diligently cultivated by the hobo…many of them develop into fascinating raconteurs…” (pg 19 Anderson) . Hoboes had “rules” for their jungles, including these as related by ANderson:
(1) Do not make fire at night in jungles subject to raids
(2) Do not rob men in jungles, or continually scavenge from other’s meals
(3) Do not waste food or destroy it after eating
(4) Do not leave pots or utensils dirty after using
(5) Do not cook without first hustling fuel
(6) Do not destroy hobo jungle equipment
(7) Keep the camp clean
The hobo phenomenon became so large, that many elements of society began to form around it. Hoboes congregated in what was termed the “main stem” of cities, a downtown area close to the railroad yard, that began to develop around the hobo’s needs. Here there were saloons, brothels, lodging houses, flophouses, and employment agencies catering to traveling or seasonal workers. Also, many early vagrants would be lodged in police stations. There were also “hobo jungles”, the early version of a “homeless camp”, usually near the rail line and near running water, but not too close to local residents. The hobo town had elements that connected with radical politics and countercultural views, and had its own countercultural term: “hobohemia“, which connects this culture with the artistic bohemian cultures of the Left Bank in Paris, Greenwich Village and elsewhere.
San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago were centers for hobo life. Minneapolis had 105 lodging houses and about 6000 hoboes living in them. San Francisco’s South of Market district (still considered one of the “grittier” areas of the city) had lodging houses accomodating 40,000 men per night just before WWI. Chicago, which earned the name “Hobo Capital of America”, was bigger than either of these, housing 40,000 to 60,000 hoboes and tramps in 200 to 300 lodging houses or cheap hotels around 1908. Nels Anderson, in his early study of hobos called “The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man“, stated that Chicago’s employment agencies placed 250,000 migratory workers (hobos) per year.
In fact, the IWW or Industrial Workers of the World, was heavily centered on the hobo army as their central work force, and the song “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” became the IWW anthem.
So there are three important points to draw from this: (1) one is that the “homeless” in early America, were primarily working people, hoboes, not non-working “bums”. (2) the early “homeless” were not actually always without shelter. Those staying in lodging houses, flophouses (where they could “rent” space on the floor to sleep), cheap hotels or private boardinghouses, were termed “homeless”, in that the meaning of the term “homeless” in those days was not “without shelter” but rather implied a disaffiliation from the normative American life, eg, life in a domestic family. (3) the work that is nowadays overwhelmingly done by “illegal immigrants” (primarily from Mexico and Central America) which we tend now to insist that “Americans will not do”, was in the past work that was done largely by hoboes, white males of European descent. Agricultural work, harvesting, construction, logging — these kinds of work were all originally the province of hoboes, who were the original migratory workers in this nation. Certainly, there were also many people of other nationalities and ethnicities who were migratory laborers, and their numbers increased over time, but the “native” hoboes were the original traveling workers. This history of western harvest workers is described by Mark Wyman in his book, “Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West.”
Significant changes began to occur in the phenomenon of hobo culture, after the “hobo army” of itinerant workers began to get too large and threatening. The mass of hoboes in “main stems” was of concern to many. Hence, building codes began to be introduced, around 1909, which doomed many lodging houses. The least expensive sort of lodgings were gradually reduced and ultimately eliminated, thus making it harder for “homeless” of any sort to find affordable shelter. This trend has increased in the last hundred years, to where building codes have become more and more strict and onerous, resulting in greater expense for all construction. As well, zoning laws have emerged which have made it more difficult to operate any type of boarding house or lodging house, and which have threatened the existence of the SRO or single room occupancy type hotel.
Employers also gradually began to prefer to hire migrant families, and then Mexicans, rather than “single drifter” hoboes. (pg 178 DePastino) They had this preference in part because they felt that the families and Mexican workers were more vulnerable and tractable, and thus easier to exploit, or less likely to demand their rights and fight the employer.
The areas of the city which had once been hobo centers, the “main stems”, began to be torn down. These areas were increasingly seen as promoting a culture that was a threat to the prevailing family ideals. Lodging houses and saloons were destroyed and replaced with expensive hotels or office towers. (pg 234 DePastino) . In Chicago, 30,000 cheap hotel rooms were replaced with office buildings. Later on, between 1970 and 1980, 1 million residential hotel rooms were destroyed (pg 243 DePastino). It seems to me that as we struggle with the “homeless crisis” of our time, we need to recognize what has actually contributed to the loss of inexpensive housing — how we intentionally destroyed so much inexpensive housing — this loss has a great deal to do with our collective destruction of lodging houses, boarding houses, and cheap residential hotels and SROs. There’s a lot of talk about “affordable housing” but most of it seems to aim to build expensive housing and then somehow, through the violence of law, force the owners or builders to rent out expensive units for unreasonably low amounts. Rather than using violence to force people to rent units for far below market rate, we should be focused on building actual inexpensive housing, which likely means, lodging houses and SROs.
In recent times, other social trends have altered the face of homelessness in our nation. The “hobo” has all but died out, since riding the rails has become much more complicated in modern times. As is described by Ted Conover in his book, “Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes“, railroads now use fewer boxcars and more closed shipping containers, making it harder to catch a ride on a freight train. There are other changes too to the railroads that make illicit free travel more difficult.
The Beats revived the romance of the road, and the image of “hitting the road” to journey to freedom turns out to be a long-lived archetype. So though we have fewer “real” hoboes, we may have “recreational hoboes” now. There is still an annual Hobo Convention in Britt Iowa, though how many real hoboes attend is open to question.
Loss of manufacturing and industrial jobs have also led to large scale unemployment and homelessness. Another disturbing trend has been the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, such that at present, at least 25% of homeless have serious mental illness. (pg 256, DePastino).
In his book American Nomads, Richard Grant states (pg 274) that
The big change in hobo society…began in the 1960’s …with the advent of welfare, social security and food stamps, hoboes no longer had to work or steal to stay alive. “All the pride and self-respect went out the window” [we could say much the same for millions of others who have been negatively effected by what Larry Elder calls the “neutron bomb” dropped on America, in the form of welfare which created generations of dependency on government handouts.]. It became possible to get blind drunk or drugged on a daily basis, rather than on payday….the old code of the rails, the system of mutual reliance, started to break down, because it was no longer necessary for survival. ….There was a steady increase in violence, as more “crazies and troublemakers” rode the rails, and during the 1980s a proliferation of gangs affected the rail life.
Ironically (particularly ironic given that we’re taught that more diversity in any community is always a good thing), Richard also says that very diversity now found in rail life, has contributed to the violence and destruction of hobo society there:
Another factor in the violence has been the diversification of the American rails. The unified hobo society that Pappy knew has balkanized into mutually suspicious groups: anarchist punks, skinheads, crackheads, biker types, smugglers of illegal Mexican immigrants, Mexican migrant workers, eco-saboteurs, college kids, and, strangest of all, yuppie hoboes.
Apparently there are now “hoboes” with GPS devices, $300 tents, down jackets, and laptops to journal about their adventures on.
In conclusion, I can see these trends in homelessness in America over time:
(1) The “original” homeless in the nation, the hoboes, were travelers and worked for their living. This in contrast to the situation today, where most of the homeless do not travel, and are not working.
(2) The “original” homeless, the hoboes, did agricultural and harvesting work, work that now people say “will not be done by Americans” and is generally done by illegal immigrants or guest workers from Mexico and Central America.
(3) In early America, communities took care of the elderly and disabled, including, ostensibly, the mentally ill, as part of their community. Now, resources and supports for these populations is less available, and too many of them are ending up on the streets to fend for themselves.
(4) In the early homeless communities, begging by the able-bodied was viewed as despicable, and there were certain “clean” values and a romantic culture framing the hobo life. Now, many able-bodied people are unashamed to beg, and in fact many feel entitled to handouts and support, without working.
(5) The amount of inexpensive lodging has dramatically decreased, as lodging house and SRO rooms by the millions have been lost. Hence, it is now much more difficult for the indigent wanderer to find shelter. Nor do police stations or saloons still allow vagrants to sleep for the night on their floors.
I am still doing research on this subject and will add more to this article as time permits….
I find it particularly tragic when someone dies on the sidewalk, or while living in a tent or a vehicle, or in a camp in the woods. Particularly if they die young — which most all of these deaths have been:– I have been trying to keep track of those homeless who have tragically passed away or been seriously hurt in this local area in recent times. This article also lists criminal incidents related to homeless camps, which either effect homeless persons, or others.
In this article, one homeless woman names 5 other homeless she knew in her area, who had died in just the last year:
“Tamoo, Kilo, Chocolate, Spicey Mike, Ebo,” she said, just counting those she said died in the past year. Two were hit by cars, one was stabbed, another shot in the head. The latest perished in a fire. Their names were memorialized with sidewalk chalk until the rain came. It’s unclear whether they were marked as homeless in county death records.”
(35) 3 people sent to hospital in People’s Park crimes. In July 2017, a “spate of crimes” at People’s Park sent 3 people to the hospital. The place is exceptionally crime-ridden and is anything but a park for the people. It’s long been a park that attracts homeless and criminals.
Many residents of Berkeley are fed up with how passive has been the response of Berkeley City Council members to nuisance caused by homeless camps or vehicle dwellers, and by the problem caused by all the RVs on the city streets, and one has come up with a creative response to this problem, as shown in this GoFundMe project:
I am a concerned Berkeley resident that is growing tired of the surrender of our city to homeless encampments and makeshift RV parks. There is an RV in my neighborhood now and when I called the police they said that they are no longer responding to these calls, even though it is illegal to sleep in a vehicle on our streets. So, I am going to buy an RV and park it in 3 day increments in front of our city council members homes in an attempt to influence their position on this topic. Sadly I lack the resources to acquire this RV on my own, so am asking the community for assistance. When it is all over I will sell the RV and donate 100% of the sale proceeds to the BUSD cooking and gardening program.
I find this a delightful creative idea. Better yet might be to buy or rent a really battered up true zombie RV, one leaking various liquids onto the pavement, and set that in front of the council person’s home. That would be more realistic, and in line with the “3 or 4 daily horrors” which Linda Maio says Berkeley residents have been calling with, in regard to RVs in West Berkeley.
PHotos from the RV in the Face project:
RV in front of Kate Harrison’s house on Lincoln at Shattuck:
RV in front of Sophie Hahn’s house at 1130 Shattuck:
People in Portland have this problem too, a real Zombie RV problem in that city: see the news story below.
I’d like to reiterate an idea for what residents can do to prevent RVs or other vehicle dwellers from parking on the street in front of your home.
Some version of this parklet could be constructed on the street in front of your home.
It’s far more attractive to use the street for a parklet, than to have homeless vehicle dwellers living inappropriately on residential streets. Other options perhaps less costly or involved than the parklet include the “garden-let” which could easily be built by buying some large heavy planter pots and extending your garden into the street. One could of course use orange cones or construction signage to block the space in front of your home, but ideally you want something that can’t be moved by any random person. Another option would just be to have a big wedge of concrete plopped down on the street in front of your house, blocking anyone from parking there. Or construct a gated space, that allows only those who have a key for the gate to open it to park there.
None of these are exactly legal, but then, neither is camping on public streets. All these creative uses would make a comment to the city council about neighbors who’ve had quite enough nonsense. And uses which add to the neighborhood charm and keep out nuisance may be preferable for many than those which introduce nuisance and blight.
Seattle also has an ongoing problem with RVs on its streets which cycle off, through fines and towing, and then back onto the streets, as the towed vehicles are bought in auctions by others using them for the same purpose: as shown here:
This woman has the misguided view that she should be allowed to live for months on the street in the same spot, without moving. Anyone familiar with California parking laws knows that simply at the level of parking laws, this would not be permitted. And when you’re camping in a vehicle you’re doing more than parking.
She keeps asserting that police are asking for a bribe to prevent the tow, but this is quite unlikely. Rather, what she fails to consider is that once the police call the tow company to come out, that tow company has to get paid, because they’ve spent time coming out. So the $250 the police are asking for is to cover the cost of the tow company coming out on a call.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I believe that cities should work together with the county and/or state, to set up legal camping areas, the equivalent of refugee camps, around the state, where people with no other options could at least live in peace. Such sites will be harder to find in urban areas though as stated in the article, Oakland is planning to set up 3 RV camps, for a total of 150 people to live in, set to open in spring 2019. This will be quite helpful, but I’ll predict that all 3 camps will be full within a few days of opening up.
Meanwhile…an RV parked on a Berkeley street, burns up in a fire…
The problem of nuisance caused by vagrants, homeless persons (often drug addicts), and homeless camps in San Francisco has been very bad for many years. In fact it’s been so bad that together with Skid Row in Los Angeles, San Francisco has been long showcased as a glaring example of how NOT to deal with the homeless problem — year after year of the same non-solutions, the same overtolerance and dopey enabling of homeless persons, vagrants and drug addicts, who often have no interest in receiving services or accepting offers of shelter, but just want to camp on sidewalks, cause nuisance and engage in drug use and crime. The resulting blight and filth has at times been spectacularly appalling.
One news story about the problem of homeless drug addicts at the Civic Center BART station showed scenes that looked straight out of a zombie apocalypse movie. Other stories counted in the hundreds the piles of human feces a pedestrian would encounter on a routine walk through downtown. This New York Times story describes the “dirtiest block in San Francisco”, and explores how intractable the problem is in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco in particular.
The city has installed five portable bathrooms for the hundreds of unsheltered people in the Tenderloin, but that has not stopped people from urinating and defecating in the streets.
“There are way too many people out here that don’t have homes,” Ms. Warren said.
Over the past five years the number of homeless people in San Francisco has remained relatively steady — around 4,400 — and the sidewalks of the Tenderloin have come to resemble a refugee camp.
The city has replaced more than 300 lampposts corroded by dog and human urine over the past three years, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Replacing the poles became more urgent after a lamppost collapsed in 2015, crushing a car.
Disputes among the street population are common and sometimes result in violence. At night bodies line the sidewalks.
“It’s like the land of the living dead,” said Adam Leising, a resident of Hyde Street.
In this video, it’s reported that the city spends $30 million a year JUST to clean up needles and human waste. Most cities’ “poop patrols” deal with dog poop, but in San Francisco, the poop patrol scoops human poo daily. New mayor London Breed declared, “I will say there is more feces on the sidewalks than I’ve ever seen growing up here.”
So, it’s been long overdue to finally get around to taking an effective approach to this profound nuisance, and it appears that after many dilettantes, London Breed is finally the mayor who’s able to get tough and get smart. As reported in this article, Ms Breed has taken the common sense approach of cracking down on the sidewalk camps all over the city, sending out city workers to move these camps every single day. In the past, camps would be left for weeks or months, and once moved, would come right back and set up the very next day, such that the city’s intervention was pointless.
“Because someone refuses services doesn’t mean that we leave things the way they are,” she said in a recent interview with The Seattle Times. “Yes, we’re going to be compassionate and we’re going to offer support and help. But no, we’re not going to let you erect a tent on the sidewalk and keep it there. We’re going to ask you to take it down and, if you refuse, then we’re going to take it down.”
Homeless and their advocates will argue that this is cruel. Some of the poorly informed will even argue that it’s unconstitutional — as did Steve in this post on the FTCFTH Facebook page. I dont’ know why it’s so hard for homeless advocates to understand the court’s ruling, as they so often misconstrue it. The court most definitely has not ruled that it’s unconstitutional to remove a homeless camp. Just consider for a moment what would be the consequences if any court in the nation actually made that ruling. You’d have to be a real idiot to not see the problems that would imply, and the total breakdown of law and zoning, health and safety in any city. No, the court’s ruling does not say that homeless camps cannot be removed, it says that people have a right to sleep in public places if there is no other shelter available. And the right to sleep overnight in a public place is most definitely not the same thing as the right to set up a permanent camp and appropriate public space on a permanent basis. At most, the right to sleep overnight would entail the right to occupy a space of the size needed to sleep, for 8 to 12 hours. But not 24 hrs, and certainly not for weeks and months at a time. As I’ve argued in many articles, limiting the homeless to what the courts have declared as their constitutional rights, instead of allowing them more space and time beyond that, would go a long way to reducing the nuisance we see in so many cities. And it appears that London Breed is finally a city leader who understands that. This may be because more of the homeless in San Francisco were drug addicts or criminals who refused help, than is the case in other cities…or maybe because the problem had just become too utterly disgusting. Or perhaps both.
Continually moving people along is the necessary “stick” to encourage the less cooperative to accept the “carrot” of offered services and/or shelter or permanent housing, something too many of the homeless and vagrants have no interest in. By making it much less pleasant to live on sidewalks, people are encouraged to get the message that they either need to accept help that’s offered, or get the hell out of the city and quit being an antisocial nuisance. More cities (like Berkeley, Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland) would do well to follow the tough love model being taken up by London Breed in San Francisco.
Some homeless advocates and those stymied by the neurosis (it ought to be a DSM category) of enabling nuisance, will sometimes argue that it is pointless to chase people around from one spot to another — the nuisance will just move from one place to another. Such arguments fail to recognize that the very process of frequent abating of nuisance is a deterrent, and that sometimes people become motivated to climb out of the toilet when, in addition to extending them a helping hand out, we make it more difficult for them to stay living in the toilet. People sometimes argue that there have always been “free spirits” and those living on the margins, outside of social norms, and we should all accept this. Yes, but those living “outside social norms” have not historically sat on the sidewalk in the middle of the city with their hand out, expecting to be compensated for causing nuisance. In the past, they lived outside of cities, in forests and hinterlands — and it’s still a much more suitable place for drug addicts to live in Slab City or some out of the way location, than on the sidewalk in a tent. It seems to me that compared to times past, “free independent spirits” have in modern times become more lame and dependent on the government and those they are literally shitting on, to support them. I say, if you want to be a free independent spirit and do whatever drugs you want, go do that in some remote place where you’re not causing someone to trip over you on their way to work when you pass out on the sidewalk again.
In a forthcoming article, I’ll explore how I believe many who we could call “homeless by choice” are talking out two sides of their mouth. While they on the one hand invoke the free spirits, hoboes, renegade tribes, “outsiders” and independent vagabonds of times past as the romantic overlay to their layabout urban lives, on the other hand they refuse to “man up” to the true demands of such an outsider existence.
The talk about getting rid of police and the value of challenging the staus quo, but they run to their attorneys every time the city tries to clean up the mess they’ve made on the sidewalk or park. They are all for being “free spirits” and off the grid, but they are afraid to live in true off the grid, extra-legal places such as Slab City, where arguments with other free spirits can result in a burned out motor home, or Cuidad Juarez where the police really are pretty impotent. They want to be free to break laws, but at the same time they want to be protected from other people breaking laws and setting fire to their direlict vans and zombie RVs, as might occur in a true outlaw realm. In sum, I’ll argue that all the chatter about being “free spirits” is often a veil of nonsense, and what these homeless-by-choice who settle in urban areas more often are is parasites, spongers who are incapable of creating their own way in the world and are dependent on handouts, freebies, and the charity of those afflicted with enabling neuroses.
This touches on another theme — which is, that many in Left Coast cities have lost the sense of what actually has made cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and Eureka colorful cities. The color and vibrance comes from the arts, culture, eccentricity, new ideas, originality, vision, architecture, design, variety, diversity — not from dirty bums on the sidewalks, drug addicts in the bushes, criminals stripping stolen bikes in a homeless camp under the freeway, people without a single useful skill living in a tent in the industrial district, insane people wandering around screaming on the sidewalks. There are some artists among the homeless, but being homeless or a bum is not in and of itself of any value to society. Not having any job skills or really anything at all useful to contribute, is also of no value to society, and is not something to celebrate or support in any way.
By all means, let’s help those who are suffering and need food, clothing, shelter — we can and should provide these things to all in need. And we can do this in an organized, systematic way, coordinated at the state and national level, whereby we help lawful citizens first, and a limited number of refugees and asylum seekers with whatever resources remain, next.
But for those who don’t want help, and just want to cause nuisance, we should have very little tolerance. So, in that respect, good on London Breed, who’s begun the long overdue process of cleaning up the city of San Francisco, so that it hopefully can welcome tourists again without great embarassment.
Let it be your heart you leave in San Francisco. Not a twenty pound bag of poo.
a place to reflect on stories, concerns, condundrums, enigmas and potential solutions for homelessness