The war on the poor

Mike Rhodes reported from California in Homeless attacked in Fresno that in February 2004, a “a coordinated multi-agency attack on homeless encampments earlier this month, the City of Fresno destroyed tents and other shelters used by the homeless … the Fresno Police Department … has returned to the tactic of not allowing the homeless to build any permanent structures. With thousands of homeless on the streets in Fresno, and homeless shelters able to provide only a couple hundred beds, a majority of the homeless have been turned into criminals. If you are homeless and can’t get into a shelter, you are breaking the law if you try to sleep anywhere in this city. This new policy penalizes the homeless and criminalizes poverty … There have also been public service announcements telling the community not to give money to the homeless … ”

Guess what this picture is about?

It used be called the War on Poverty in the US. Now it seems to be the war on people in poverty. First, governments create unemployment through their deliberate misuse of their fiscal powers (obsession with budget surplus and fighting inflation at all costs). There is an undeniable direct causation between unemployment and subsequent poverty. Then the governments start attacking the ‘welfare system’ because the poverty and dependency they have created starts to ‘cost too much’ then they decide that the ultimate solution is to lock the poor up – which as I reported yesterday is now a refined regional development strategy in the US.

In recent developments, Matthew Cardinale reports in Many Cities Becoming Meaner to Homeless Study Shows, published December 27, 2004, that “cities across the U.S. are increasingly turning to criminalization tactics towards homeless people …” The Illegal to Be Homeless: Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States study published as an annual report by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) is the result of a task force “convened by NCH called the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP)”.

Cardinale reports that “Criminalization is defined as the passage of discriminatory laws towards the homeless which make it illegal for homeless people to do the things they need to in order to survive … Literally, criminalization makes it illegal for homeless people to survive in a city. If a city has laws against loitering, soliciting, and sleeping in public parks, then the only legal thing for a homeless person to do is to walk around aimlessly and never talk to anyone. This is an obvious physical impossibility.”

Fresno City Council (see photo above) is to build an outdoor drunk tank operated by an evangelical group known as the Fresno Rescue Mission. The mission which will run the tank is directed by this sprightly character. The drunk tank to be built under a freeway will be enclosed with a chain-linked, razor wire fence, in which persons would be put on public display for being intoxicated. The city council calls the move an ‘innovative'” way of reducing spending.

Cardinale reports that the “Rescue Mission, would be handling the booking of drunk residents of Fresno and offering spiritual counseling for addiction. That is, city funds would be used to pay for religious groups to care for drunk, homeless people who have to be prayed over against their will.”

In a book by Viviane Forrester called L’horreur Economique which I read recently, the proposition is outlined that governments are failing to generate enough employment but at the same time they are promoting a backlash against those who are jobless. So on the one hand the work ethic is pushed by governments and its neo-liberal confidants but there is according to Ian Cotton in the Guardian Weekly” a “constant downsizing of ever larger tranches of the working and, now, middle classes; the steady attrition, internationally, of welfare and union rights; the growing destabilisation of those in work, let alone of the unemployed.

All this has created an employment and unemployment (and underemployment) culture that is not merely stressful, regrettable and unpleasant but has further, argues Forrester – and it is her tone of outrage which is arguably the book’s chief selling point – spawned an economic world that is an obscenity, an affront to human nature; indeed, in the words of the title, a ‘horror’.”

The book ventures into the notion that governments (elected by us) have made the unemployment dispensable to ‘capitalist production and profit’ and have instead been content to keep them alive. But soon, why would it not be implausible to declare this growing group of disadvantaged citizens totally irrelevant. Then different solutions might be advanced. Don’t think this is off the track … after all only 65 odd years ago Germany decided that a definable cohort was to be exterminated.

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