Friday, April 6, 2012

The post-Occupy left discovers homelessness

Homeless people seem suddenly to be getting accepted as people with civil rights by the mainstream of the American left. I really believe we can thank last fall's flowering of the Occupy movement for it. The Occupy activists did all that camping in public squares, discovering a day at a time the logistical problems and official harassment and stigmatization that homeless people have dealt with for years. It seems genuinely to have left them with the impression that homeless people are worth defending.

Here, for example, AlterNet managing editor Tana Ganeva is pointing out "10 Unbelievably Sh**ty things America Does to Homeless People". (Asterisks sic. Must be an SEO thing.) It's listing forms of criminalization and rejection that folks like the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty have been pointing out for a long, long time. But in the past, homeless-rights advocates found themselves describing these problems to a limited audience with a short attention span. Now the core of the American left seems ready to hear the news.

I almost wonder if fellow-feeling for homeless people among influential activists may be the most lastingly useful effect from last fall's Occupy fuss. It seems just possible that Occupy has put us on our way to recovery from the exceptionalist assumption that "America is a rich country." We are, really, a selectively rich country. So, for that matter, is Nigeria. That is, our countries aren't at all the same, but we could benefit from the admission that we exist at different points on the same continuum.

Back in the 1990s, I would run into activists with otherwise solid progressive attitudes who seemed to view the homeless as below their level of attention. Here I'm thinking especially of people I would meet at professional events for lefty lawyers. At these events, the workers' rights of housed workers were real. The rights of employed immigrants were real. The rights of political demonstrators were real. Racism, gender and disability discrimination, and the other commonly understood forms of bigotry were real. Class prejudice was real when it had to do with accent, neighborhood, education, cultural style. But when it came to homeless people considered as members of their own category (that is, not as members, individually, of the groups understood to be oppressed), well, homeless people's rights (as distinct from their material needs) seemed less important. If you did homeless-rights work as a lawyer, the assumption would be that you provided direct legal services and social work -- traditionally womanly kinds of charity -- and not help in asserting core civil rights. Because anyone that badly off must be somehow partly to blame for their own troubles. Must be in need of services, not rights.

Looking back, that's such a "first-world" attitude. We're not uniformly a first-world country, whatever that term ever actually meant. So we're very much better off losing the attitude.

Here it is, folks: we've got nothing to lose but our leases.

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