Monday, July 03, 2006

The homeless population is the United States' untouchables. Part 1: The Homeless as Outcasts.

This blog will argue from analogy that the most impoverished citizens of the United States in Oakland, California served by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County Champion Guidance Center exhibit similarities to and in some contexts are actually worse off than, the citizens of India's well-known (and currently illegal) bottom caste--the one not even recognized as existing in the eyes of their Creator--the untouchables. I assume most reasonable Americans cringe at the thought of an untouchable caste and probably breath a sigh of righteous relief that such a system would never be tolerated at home. My hope is that this sentiment may be used to break the veneer of self-denial, to eliminate the gap between where America thinks she is and where her economic health actually lies. My hope is that after America cringes at herself, she may begin to heal herself.

According to National Geographic Magazine, "Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India's people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down. The primordial being does not claim them"

I will use my experience at the Champion Guidance Center to argue that the clients we serve fit the above definition. Not unreasonaly my experience could, with some tweaks, be universalized to encompass all of the homeless in Oakland and the United States. As with any analogy, the parallels are not exact; in these instances I argue that the American homeless man's situation is actually worse than the Indian untouchable's.

The Homeless as Outcasts.

The first description of untouchabes as "outcasts" defined as someone considered a non-human, is readily apparent. Let's work form the macro level on down. First, they are ghetto-ized into a specific geographic loation. Right now, this location is usually an urban location near downtown, unless downtown happens to be a genetrified tourist attraction, as with the Gas Lamp District of San Deigo California. The evolution of this is incredibly interesting. For downtown were presumably formed because they were the centers of economy--the place for the weathy to shop, eat, and recreate. The homeless, during these times, were relegated to rural outposts. (Note here the definition's pervasiveness of prejudice "in particular in the rurual areas." The only place where homelessness seems to receive attention is in the city center. Choosing to not even acknowledge people, as with the homeless in rural areas such as Native American Reservations, seems to me, to be worse than prejudice.) But when the poorer and more colored people arrived in the city centers seeking work the wealthy suddenly fled, creating strip mall paradises and a whole new land called suburbia. We have Orange County, California, as evidence--a classic "white flight" response to the influx of poor people to downtown Los Angeles.
Unlike the former Indian situation, the government as in the policymakers, of American have not (yet) endorsed this ghettoization with its words (another essay might argue that its actions have in fact done this). But the government, as in the people, has, however, in other ways collectively stamped approval for this situation. The word "ghetto" itself, for example, has morphed in American language from a description of a social catastrophe ("ghetto" as the precursor to prison camp), to a glorifed almost honorable situation. Rap stars "from the hood," are often revered, although one would note that, after they amass enough wealth, they usually move to elite, mostly white, suburban neighborhoods--a clear sign that the ghetto (in both the more recent vulgar sense as well as in the more traditional social mode) is, in fact, not a very nice place to live.

What other evidence have we to prove that the homeless of America are considered outcasts, that is, non-human? First, we must select our definition of human. Shall we take the United States Declaration of Independence where enlightened Europeans declared that humans are those beings with "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" Or should we use the United Nations Delaration of Human Rights where it defines humans as those beings with "the right to life, liberty and security or person (Article 3)," and "the right to not be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 5)," and " the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state" (Article 13), and the list goes on. Perhaps, for reasons of brevity and lest my sentiments be interpretated as "unamerican" either because I didn't use the Declaration of Independence or because, if I use the UN's definition, I might just be hanging too much of America's dirty laundry out for all to see, I should use the Declaration of Independence.

So humans are those beings with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At St. Mary's Center just across the street from St. Vincent de Paul, they hold a funeral ceremony for all of the homeless clients they serve who have passed away. Need I say more? Another client who came to me for the Homeless Court described, in letter form, his desires to return to prison (a violation of liberty) and to seek the death penalty (a violation of life). You see, the situation of these people is so dire that the most extreme versions of possible evidence are actually true. Per the above the homeless are literally dying, every single day. Per the amount of Homeless Court cases the homeless are literally denied liberty, every single day. The pursuit of happiness? Not possible without life or liberty.

What is next in our definition? "People considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings." Here again, even if we interpret the terms in their most extreme sense in hopes that America really isn't like India used to be, we still find ourselves unable to deny their truth. Our clients are literally impure and pollutted: they walk into our center dirty and smelly. At Project Homeless Connect I saw a staff worker follow a man around with disinfectant spray--disinfectant spray! He was a germ. Our clients have diseases too, not just the metaphorical kinds of disease like being raised in a culture of violence, but the literal ones like HIV, tuberculosis, and Hepatitis C. They are polluted literally: they live in smog-infested cities and use the space where the rest of us put only the bottoms of our covered feet--the sidewalk--to rest their heads. They are pollutted metaphorically: they are the most vulnerable targets of America's corporate marketing conglomerates. 100% of the homeless people who staff and run our facility smoke cigarettes. Every single one. What else needs to be said! Perhaps the word of an artist--a black, homeless, educated artist--may awaken your senses to this pollution: "Out in the streets the game goes on get your money buck the heat, smoking each others' lives filled with deceit. Just another nobody down for the kill, a statistic part of this year's bill. Whole generations of my youth break dancing right behind me into new corporate concrete steel hells, smelling of death caught up in player spells. Silly foxybrowns, Lil Kims broken black Barbie girls strung out on lucky charms, play things finding worth in folls gold, big cars, diamond rings, prisoners of material things, with no out date for all the pain life brings."


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