Let's Blame the Homeless!

[A disgusting, mockable woman demonstrating one of the uses of sidewalks.]

At first glance, this desperate plea for attention by the CityPages is kind of cute. At second glance, it's completely wrong-headed and destructive, painting a cartoon picture of poverty and homelessness that only further dehumanizes people who need help.

Thankfully, most of the comments are far more thoughtful than the article: For example, this great comment from MarsBars:
This kind of article just makes people more angry and scared of the people walking down the street next to them. It breeds negativity toward our neighbors and insensitivity toward the very real issues these people are facing: racism, discrimination, childhood abuse, mis- or undiagnosed mental illness, substance abuse, unlivable wages, ridiculously high rents, the high cost of healthcare, etc.

I'd be willing to bet that all of the people mentioned in the article have severe mental health problems. Sure, the "personal responsibility" mantra suggests that everyone needs to be blamed for their own actions. There's a big difference between an addict and a murderer. What good is pointing your finger at someone who can barely put his pants on, let alone feed himself? Is desperate poverty a personal or a social problem?

Cities are one way that we deal with social problems. Especially in the US, we closely identify "the city" with crime, poverty, and social ills, and debates about "funding cities" are codewords for taking care of the poor. That's one reason why we have such a starkly segregated and suburbanized landscape, where social problems are increasingly concentrated within the downtown fringes of US cities. Places like the Near North Side or Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, or the Dorothy Day Center in Saint Paul become the only politically acceptably sites for social services and homeless shelters. Poor neighborhoods like North Minneapolis and Saint Paul's East Side become increasingly isolated. Building affordable housing in suburban areas becomes increasingly difficult, only further concentrating poverty and overloading already stressed social service networks.

Like it or not, living in the city means confronting and taking care of all parts of our society. We have a responsibility to those least able to take care of themselves. Rather than calling names, pointing fingers, and mocking the truly pathetic lives of "King Listerine" and the "Skyway Jerkoff", perhaps we should be interviewing people who deal with homelessness every day and asking them how we can solve this problem in Minneapolis?

[One person's description of actually helping homeless people in Minneapolis.]

P.S. Believe it or not, many years ago I used to actually read CityPages. I remember lots of great moments: hydropower up in Manitoba, Budd Rugg, Dara, calling out city politicians. But I haven't touched that paper in many years. Every since that cover story about Derek Boogaard.

Update: Nice Op-Ed by Barbara Erinreich about the "criminalization of poverty".


Reid said...

I thought it was a pretty bad article too (particularly the scary and incongruous anecdote at the beginning), and it's unclear to me what the goal is.

However, the crimes described in the article - e.g., breaking into cars, theft, assault - are serious and have a dramatic effect on the liveability of a neighborhood. Even "little" stuff like panhandling and loitering has a negative effect. If scruffy people are hanging around, that make the neighborhood objectively worse to live in - particularly if the hanging around is taking place in e.g. my driveway vs. on the steps by the Sabo Bridge (where I pass by frequently and am not really bothered).

I also agree that treatment, rather than punishment, is often more appropriate. Emphasis on OFTEN as opposed to always. The goal is "reducing the bad behavior", and if treatment accomplishes that, great, but if that fails, please lock the person up.

I'm by no means an apologist for the police. I don't trust them, and their presence makes me nervous even when I'm not doing anything wrong. And the system, being largely punishment-oriented, certainly fails to accomplish the goals above.

But, I think it's only fair for people to want their neighborhood to be free of these bad things. You can't just demand that people accept the bad behavior because it's caused by reasons outside the offender's control.

Reid said...

also, I want to be e-mailed follow-ups and I don't know how to do that other than post another comment. sorry.

Bill Lindeke said...

I don't disagree with anything you said, Reid. The point I'm trying to make is that this article doesn't even broach the question of 'what to do' about these problems. (And they ARE problems!) These offenders, my public defender girlfriend tells me, are constantly in court and can't really function within society.

Simply 'holding them accountable' isn't going to work. Some sort of treatment, that raises the very difficult questions of addiction and mental health, is necessary. That's an article I want to see. Interview a homeless person (I saw that happen in one local newsweekly once), or talk to social workers. Ask them what to do... We can do better than simply cultivating fear and loathing in Minneapolis.

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