Winning a World Without Homelessness
The current battle over the future of the historic Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) shelter marks the end of an era. As every old approach to homelessness fails, we enter a time of great danger for the homeless themselves and for the future of our nation. If we address the real causes of homelessness, however, and adhere to our moral vision, we can win.
The Community for Creative Non-Violence was established when homeless people squatted in a then-vacant building in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. They rallied hundreds of homeless activists and advocates to resist eviction with civil disobedience. A hunger strike by Mitch Snyder that lasted fifty-one days. President Reagan relented and signed a restrictive covenant designating the building as a shelter for thirty years until 2016. As the deadline draws near, the danger is that the government will disperse the 1350 homeless in the CCNV shelter in return for some temporary vouchers. Homeless activists are fighting for a mixture of new affordable housing and shelter on the site of the 75-year-old deteriorating building.
CCNV was established while America was still shocked by the sudden appearance of mass homelessness on the streets of its cities in the 1980s. Unheard of since the Great Depression, homelessness was the fruit of an epochal economic transformation. The arrival of electronic computer technology signaled the beginning of the replacement of America’s industrial workforce with automated, robotic production. This became visible during the 1981-83 Reagan-Volcker recession that transformed the industrial heartland of America into what is now called the Rust Belt. Investment began shifting from industry to financial speculation, and permanent unemployment steadily spread throughout the economy.
Homelessness in the early 1980s was not an act of God. Automation created a convergence of economic forces leading to deliberate government policy decisions. With the economy needing fewer employees, corporations were no longer willing to pay taxes for subsidized housing. Congress and the President slashed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing budget from $83 billion to $18 billion from 1978-83. Funds which had once housed workers were redirected into tax breaks for capital improvements by industry – speeding up the automation already underway and increasing unemployment further. New incentives for real estate speculation drove up urban rents; at the same time homelessness was depressing wages, creating still more homelessness.
Despite concerted government efforts to portray homelessness as an “African American problem,” reality soon made it clear that people of all colors and nationalities were subject to it. A wave of moral outrage ensued that even the Reagan government had to acknowledge. After the “Great American Sleep-Out” by homeless activists, celebrities, and Congress members in 1987, the government created the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to fund emergency shelters and homeless services. The idea was to address the immediate emergency by funding stopgap measures to help the homeless while the economy recovered.
The old economy never did recover, however. It was transformed, and the industrial jobs never returned. The government continued to reduce funding for affordable housing. McKinney-Vento replaced tens of billions of dollars of federal housing subsidies with barely $1 billion in homeless assistance, so its main effect was only to recycle the homeless from the streets to shelters to transitional housing and back to the streets again.
Ten Year Plans
When it became clear that shelters were not effective, the government in the early 2000s adopted the “housing first” model to “end homelessness.” “Housing first” was a policy, long advocated by the homeless themselves, that the way to end homelessness is to put people into homes they can afford. When the government and social service bureaucracy discovered it, they encouraged every locality to adopt a “ten year plan to end homelessness,” and hundreds of them did.
The original concept of “housing first” was to house the homeless and then phase out shelters. Without affordable housing, however, “housing first” was no more effective than McKinney-Vento. The ten year plans are concluding now with more homeless on the streets than when they started. It is becoming clear that the government has no intention whatsoever of ending homelessness, but is phasing out shelters anyway, with only occasional band-aid programs to appease the public.
The Role of Morality
As automation continues its steady progress toward total conquest of the economy, plans are underway to eliminate federal housing assistance altogether. From the Bipartisan Federal Deficit Commission of 2010 to the sequesters of 2011 and 2013, the government has made clear its intention to eliminate HUD housing completely in a relatively few years.
However, just as it did in the 1980s, America’s sense of morality stands as a major obstacle to ruling class plans to abandon the poor. The New Deal and postwar response to the “Grapes of Wrath” conditions of the Depression taught generations of Americans that relatively inexpensive government programs could eliminate and overcome all the worst aspects of poverty. Further, the fact that homelessness cuts across racial lines showed us that this was not a condition that could be dismissed or scapegoated as a racial issue. In fact, government policy increasingly appears to be moving to paint the homeless themselves as a separate “race” to be isolated and hated based on economic status.
A broad, scattered network of religious and other moral activists has emerged and united with the homeless as brothers and sisters to address the crisis. This moral force has made the movement powerful far beyond the small one percent of the population that the homeless actually represent. It has especially grown as it becomes obvious that the technological revolution is creating more than enough wealth to abundantly feed, clothe, house, educate and heal all our people.
“A true revolution of values will look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” wrote Dr. King. Expanding wealth is forcing state and local governments to adopt more open hostility toward the poor, when they can no longer justify cutting programs with budget shortfalls. Now that Washington D.C. has a budget surplus, the Mayor says he cannot help the homeless, because they are “lazy” and “shiftless.”
The great danger today is that government is stepping up attempts to divide the homeless from their supporters, divide them from the working class as a whole, and viciously assault their rights. In Albuquerque, James Boyd was shot dead by police for camping on a hillside. Palo Alto, California attempted to outlaw sleeping in cars. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have been established in Washington D.C. and all across the country to drive the homeless out of downtown areas. The Columbia, South Carolina City Council ordered police officers to arrest homeless people in the downtown area and take them to a shelter at the edge of town, where they are not allowed to leave. In Pinellas County, Florida, homeless shelters are increasingly being merged with jails, with sheriff’s deputies administering both. All across the country, city governments are stepping up efforts to outlaw serving food to homeless people in public parks. In Daytona Beach and St. Petersburg, certain Christian ministers have literally been banned from parks where the homeless congregate.
If the government succeeds in isolating the homeless, the danger of sweeps, round-ups and concentration camps is not far behind. In high-cost, hi-tech areas like Silicon Valley, there has been talk of forcing seniors and the disabled out of town to make room for the “value creators.” San Francisco technology executive Greg Gopman openly called for sweeping the “crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash” out of downtown. He called them “hyenas” who “act like they own the center of the city” and should be banished to “an area of town for degenerates.”
The Role of Politics
Clearly the first step of the movement is to defend the human rights of the homeless and those who serve and stand in solidarity with them. Western Regional Advocacy Project is leading a national campaign for a Homeless Bill of Rights right now. Fighting for the rights of the homeless is a central front in the resistance to fascism in America. We dare not underestimate the political strength of the morality of this position. Too many Americans instinctively recognize that discarding and devaluing the homeless and disabled is the first step on the road to a Nazi-style final solution.
We have to frame this as a moral issue, but we cannot win if we leave it at that. It is above all a political question. Government austerity threatens not only the homeless, but also broad sectors of tenants, unemployed, youth and the entire class of people discarded by the private property economy. Revolutionaries are called to unite the scattered resistance into a unified political movement. In the 1930s fighting back was sufficient, because a sector of the ruling class, for its own reasons, came to the aid of the working class through the Democratic Party. Today, however, the two major parties are openly aligning themselves against the poor and the dispossessed. There is no way to build a united movement without working in and around the independent third party political movements that are beginning to form.
Revolutionaries are responsible for being involved in the immediate practical movement, while they also fight for the future of the movement as a whole. They participate in the battle of the homeless and other sectors of our class in order to influence the consciousness of the combatants. This engagement over ideas, strategy, and direction will deepen political polarization, and in time, lead to a separation of class interests and a true workers party.
On the other hand, the revolutionaries also study and educate the movement around a vision of the future. Like slavery, homelessness stems from a society that places private property rights above human rights. Just as our ancestors overthrew slavery, today we are called to overthrow private property, and work to build a society based on all the love, cooperation, and enthusiasm that we as beautiful human beings carry within us.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011