Saturday, August 31, 2013

Where Do the Homeless Come From?

“... Capitalism will behave antisocially if it is profitable for it to do so, and that can now mean human devastation on an unimaginable scale. What used to be apocalyptic fantasy is today no more than sober realism....”   -Terry Eagleton

I've been asked to deliver a talk on the causes of homelessness at the end of September. Half jokingly, I wrote on my Facebook page:

"Been invited to talk to a local church about the causes of homelessness. Basically, I am going to blame it all on capitalism'.

But later--as I began to prepare for the talk--I thought, 'Shit. This really is capitalism's fault'.

What you typically hear in a discussion of the causes of homelessness is statistics about mental health and substance abuse, along with a little bit of information about laborers who have aged out of the workforce and women fleeing domestic violence. More daring speakers may get into issues of racism, homophobia, and sexism too. These are all key contributors to homelessness. What do they have to do with capitalism? Everything. Unfortunately, most speakers are not daring enough to completely indict our entire social system.

Capitalism is a socioeconomic system that understands the basic law of the jungle: eat or be eaten. Only the strong survive. These two precepts are in the very cells of capitalism. Capitalism is also inherently an exploitative system: For someone to be on top, another person has to be on the bottom. Staying on the top cannot be done without ensuring that those who begin on the bottom stay on the bottom. Capitalism can be compared to a machine that must keep moving in order to prevent from collapsing. The fuel it uses to keep it moving is the lives of the exploited classes. As it moves, it grinds up bodies. In order to stay on top, the exploiters must become much more vicious. In order to rise to the top in this system, a person must almost by definition be a perfect sociopath. Bear in mind: you are statistically likely to die in the same class you are born into. 'The American Dream' is more myth than it is a possibility.

  Things like mental illness, substance abuse, racism, sexism, and domestic violence affect everyone across all classes (although you do not find many laborers aged out of their professions in the 1%). The difference between the way the 1% handles these issues and the extreme poor (a necessary byproduct of capitalism) handle these issues are vast.

Like everything else, the quality of services available to the very rich (the richest of whom have inherited their wealth, not earned it) is far superior to the quality of services available to the rest of us. You will not find many folks from very wealthy families in our shelter system. You will not find many women from the 1% fleeing abuse into our shelter system. Rich folks with mental illness and substance abuse problems handle them much more differently. They have the resources.

There are homeless people in so-called socialist countries, but there are no real socialist countries in the world. Capitalism taints everything. It is like a cancer that spreads even into the most egalitarian environments. It is this system--built off of our basest qualities--that fills our shelters and sidewalks with homeless people.

There is enough wealth in the United States to end extreme poverty the world over. Venezuela ended extreme poverty by nationalizing oil and oil production. Imagine if we were to follow suit? The wars we have engaged in over the past few years cost more than the projected cost of Obamacare, yet we were willing to pay for those. The money is there. Karl Marx predicted that real communism would only be possible in a country that had accumulated a vast amount of capital via the capitalist system. America fits that bill perfectly. It's just a matter of redistributing it. Really, it's just a matter of priorities.

All of those typically listed causes of homelessness can be addressed. We just need the resources. We have the resources, but only if we start to think collectively and humanistically. The resources are there, but are they there for us, or for them?

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