Friday, May 18, 2012

Why can't "cleanup" mean help, not eviction?

So San Jose has plans to destroy camp sites of people who lack other housing. That's bad enough.

But the Mercury News makes it worse by describing the plans as "cleanups". With no other point of view than that some neighbors and officials blame the campers for crime and trash, so the campers have got to go.

This article is behind even our nasty times in its nastiness, what with that old depersonalizing use of "homeless" as a non-count noun. What with those other archaic usages like "the homeless camp problem." (Try substituting any minority-group label except "homeless" into that phrase and, well, doesn't it sound creepy?)

Oddly the paper shows no sympathy at all for a camper described as the subject of a complaint by indignant "property owner John Davis" who "is so entrenched behind Davis' property that he's set up a terraced vegetable garden."

As though a man who took the time and trouble to set up a vegetable garden on another's land is irreducibly a bad neighbor because he's a squatter. Anyway as though the gardener has no point of view worth hearing.

On the whole, as though people living in improvised housing couldn't possibly live decently given the chance.

It would be nice, just once in a while, to see a municipal effort that would help campers to maintain clean and safe living spaces, instead of treating all campers equally as outlaws. E.g., per San Francisco experience, I very much doubt the city would allow people in those encampments to open a municipal garbage pickup account if they asked, and yet I very much expect there are people in those encampments who would welcome the opportunity to set up such an account, and to pay its bills, in exchange for being spared the city's idea of "cleanup". (This is, yes, speculation from a distance, but based on similar experiences in the past over here.)

Instead, we have, oh goody, announcements of city programs that, if successful, will house a total of 160 people. And statistics from the county saying that, as of last year, 7045 people were homeless in Santa Clara County, of whom 2520 got the pathologizing label, "chronically homeless."

These numbers are not adding up. We are no longer a kind of country that can pretend to be too good for shantytowns. Sooner or later city governments will have to accept improvised housing as real housing, and people who live in such housing as real citizens.

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