Hostility against the homeless is on the rise

Photo by Chris Jun

Why can’t we get a grip on this problem?

Here in America, most people will just walk past a homeless person on the street and act as though he/she does not exist.         Jonah Reuben

The emergence of hostile architecture has compounded the moral crisis of our housing shortage. Too often we are leaving people experiencing homelessness with no place—indoors or outdoors—to rest or to be safe.   —Tony Bernal

Just this last December, thousands of people in dozens of cities across the globe gathered together for the “World’s Big Sleep Out.” The participants of this event purposely slept outside in the cold in an attempt to increase the amount of attention that societies pay to the crisis of homelessness.

One participant, Jim O’Shea, told The New York Times that while sleeping in Time’s Square certainly helped him to empathize with the plight of the homeless, come the next morning he knew that he would be returning to “a bed, a shower, and heat.” In other words, this was not the same thing as living on the street night after night.

Here in Minnesota, since 2015 there has been a significant increase in the number of homeless. In fact, according to the Amherst Wilder Foundation, there are more Minnesotans currently experiencing homelessness than ever before.

Locally, homelessness is an issue that’s been covered in the news more than usual, at least of late anyway. There were the ferocious blasts of Arctic air that descended on the Twin Cities in late January of 2018 and again at that same time in 2019, resulting in an “emergency situation” for the area’s homeless population.  

Plus, let’s not forget that the 2018 cold spell coincided with the festivities around Super Bowl LII, during which the homeless in Minneapolis were strategically relocated. Later that same year, one of the largest homeless encampments ever emerged along East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.

Then, a mere three weeks ago on Christmas Day, we all awoke to the tragedy that beset the residents of the Francis Drake Hotel. Within days The Minneapolis Foundation raised nearly half-a-million dollars to help the displaced families.

Donations of food and clothing were so voluminous that authorities couldn’t adequately manage them and donors were asked to stop bringing items to the scene. (See last week’s MSR lead story, “Drake disaster draws outpouring of community support.”)

This outpouring of support speaks to the best in all of us. It is quite common that we respond in this way to such a calamity. Yet, the misery of homelessness is relegated to singular events.

Homelessness is a tragedy in and of itself. And, as has pretty much always been the case, we are not doing a particularly good job of addressing this crisis.

Don’t get me wrong, there are multitudes of professionals out there in our world who have dedicated their lives and careers to the service of others, including those who experience homelessness. Moreover, there are scores and scores of individuals, including those of limited means, who give whatever they can of their time and money in support of those less fortunate than themselves.

Yet collectively, someway and somehow, we are still missing something when it comes to the issue of homelessness. To be clear, homelessness is not only rising in the Twin Cities, but in just about every major metropolitan area in the nation, including places where it was already out of control—cities like Baltimore, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Portland.  

For the longest time—be it in the media, literature, politics, popular culture, or simply the larger society in general—the homeless have been treated as if they are “invisible.” Now, in a rather strange albeit predictable way, that is starting to change, and not for the better.

As the number of homeless people has increased, so has the hostility towards them. For example, cities such as Los Angeles have witnessed a proliferation in anti-homeless technology. According to one observer, author Joel Stein, there are neighborhood sidewalks in the city that have been “festooned with potted plants, four-foot-high plastic fences, cactus gardens and small trees” all designed to discourage homeless citizens from settling in those areas. 

In Seattle, bike racks, sprinkler systems, and “anti-homeless” benches are just a few examples of the hostile architecture telling those already suffering the indignity of homelessness, “You are not welcome here.”

The perpetrators and defenders of such abhorrent behavior generally point to the notion that the homeless struggle with addiction, alcoholism or mental illness. As such, when they camp out near commercial and residential areas, they are bad for business, property values, and the public safety.

To be sure, one cannot deny the correlation between homelessness and addiction or mental illness. Perhaps, however, if society treated addiction as a health problem rather than as a personal flaw, we’d have a better grip on things.

The same goes for mental illness. Neither of these things are crimes, nor are they character deficiencies. Moreover, they are not the primary reasons for homelessness.

The most recent data from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reveals the three most common reasons for homelessness are lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty. The homeless include children, the disabled, veterans and victims of domestic violence, among others. America’s rising wealth and income gaps will only increase the ranks of the poor and the homeless over time.

Certainly, there are many reasons why people wind up homeless. Some do indeed need help with addiction or mental illness. Some need to escape an abusive relationship. Others need employment, transportation, and other critical supports.

But as social justice activist Cynthia Griffith notes, there is one thing that every homeless person needs. A home.

About Clarence Hightower

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

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One Comment on “Hostility against the homeless is on the rise”

  1. As a journalist, I’ve reported on housing issues since 1998 and won a PREMACK AWARD FOR PUBLIC INTEREST JOURNALISM in 2007, for reporting on homeless youth.

    Thanks for giving us the “conservative”/American Enterprise Institute answer—as if there’s not ALREADY plenty of blame/shame directed at people in poverty and/or homelessness. There seems to a sense of “grievance” –resentment, even—simmering under your comment. It’s as if it’s ‘wasteful” to spend resources on these people. I bet you’re totally OK with spending FAR MORE on Public Money for PRO-SPORTS STADIUMS or TAX BREAKS for hugely PROFITABLE Big Corporations and BILLIONAIRES That your CONCLUSION is that all services for homeless people “should have their doors shut” and homeless people FURTHER “Criminalized” seems to be evidence that I’m correct in my analysis of your ultimate CONTEMPT for low-income people–especially, if, homeless.

    You IGNORE THE causes OF HOMELESSNESS stated in the article

    1.You FAIL utterly to recognize just how hard it is to get access to addiction treatment (that’s more than in-atient of 2 weeks duration) or to get REAL mental health treatment–besides a “72 hour hold” at a public hospital and a prescription for psychotropic drugs. For a decade, we’ve been having a national discussion about the OBSTACLES to AFFORDABLE access to PHYSICAL Health Care. Try getting MENTAL HEALTH CARE!!! Personally, I was NOT able to get mental health care until I was 40 years old and on Social Security for a physical disability.
    2.You make NO MENTION of the challenges of escaping DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. While there is a local shelter, this country has NEVER FULLY FUNDED shelters and services needed to address the scope of domestic violence. NEVER. At BEST, in SOME years, HALF the funded needed was granted. increasingly, even that is NOT forthcoming, as those who sing the praises of “small government” and “tax cuts” (mostly for the WEALTHY).
    3. Finally, you IGNORE the ESCALATING COST of housing. For 25+ years, older housing stock—which USED TO BE lower-income housing– has been either TORN DOWN or “rehabbed” —more accurately GENTRIFIED. At the SAME time, we have been LOSING (average 1,000+ units a year) for at least 20 years LITTLE NEW LOW-INCOME HOUSING has been built. In 1998, the feds passed a LIMIT that Public Housing would NOT BE EXPANDED beyond the number of units of 1998.

    Public policy has actually made the hosing crisis WORSE and INCREASED homelessness.

    Minneapolis is in the midst of a BUILDING BOOM–but, almost ALL of the units are “Luxury Apartments” or Condominiums. The AVERAGE One-Bed room apartment costs $1,000 (PLUS some or all utilities) “Affordability” is considered to be 30% of income. Low-wage workers, disabled people and low-income seniors often pay HALF OR MORE of their income for housing.

    While the endless TAX BREAKS and other goodies go to Big Developers and other wealthy entities, our elected politicians do little or nothing to address the NECESSITY of far MORE LOW-INCOME HOUSING. Until all these issues are addressed, homelessness will CONTINUE and likely INCREASE. Blaming HUMAN BEINGS who are being treated like DISPOSABLE GARBAGE for homelessness only adds further insult to the injuries these people are enduring.

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