Wednesday, April 06, 2016

La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts

(I have sent this across to the editor ... maybe it will show up in print, eh)

I picked up plenty of new ideas at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers, which was held in San Francisco. In addition to the scholarly sessions that served abundant intellectual fodder, the city streets also made me think, yet again, about one particular issue—the homeless.

The Hilton at Union Square was the main venue. Every time I walked a mere block from the hotel, away from the touristy trolley car station, it was depressing to see homeless men and women of all ages. It was a bizarre and simultaneous juxtaposition of affluence and material deprivation.

Estimates are that there are nearly 7,000 homeless people in San Francisco. No amount of intellectual inquiry about homelessness can help me emotionally understand how the mightiest country, which can wage wars on far corners of the earth, can also have seven thousand people homeless in one of the iconic cities of the modern world. Homelessness in San Francisco is so acute and has been so for a while that the Board of Supervisors has been mulling over declaring a state of emergency, which will help bypass some of the regulations and requirements that otherwise will delay implementing even temporary measures to address the situation.

Meanwhile, the City of Palo Alto, which is in the heart of the fabled Silicon Valley, is considering building new housing and offering them at subsidized rates to families that earn less than 250,000 dollars a year. Yes, even those earning a quarter of a million dollars are finding it difficult to get a place of their own in a part of the world where unimaginable riches are made overnight. If shelter is not affordable for the rich middle class in the Golden State, then that contrast alone will make one sympathize with San Francisco’s homeless.

Here in Oregon, especially in the Eugene-Springfield region, we can relate to the homelessness emergency in San Francisco. The homeless, whose number according to reports exceeds a thousand on any given day, have become a constant fixture in the city and by the river too. The part of the bike path alongside the Willamette that I always walk often has telltale signs of homeless people having used that for a few hours or even a few days.

My first exposure to homelessness in the US was even before I got here. Growing up in India, when comparing and contrasting the two political economic systems that the Soviet Union and America represented, my friends and I had a tough time imagining how a rich country could have poor people sleeping on city sidewalks, like how the urban poor in India spent their nights. During my first year in graduate school in Los Angeles, it was even more of an up-close-and-personal exposure—intellectually and on the streets—to homelessness as a public policy issue.

Whether it is San Francisco or here in the Eugene/Springfield area, the homeless are surrounded by extravagant symbols of affluence. For instance, even here, a couple of blocks away from downtown Eugene is the two hundred million dollar basketball arena that hosts entertainment events. Obviously, it is not that we do not have the money to spend on the humanitarian crisis. Apparently we do not consider spending on easing the human suffering to be a priority, in contrast to our eagerness to amuse ourselves.

The local governments, to their credit, have for a while clearly and loudly spoken about urban homelessness. A few cities consider homelessness to be a crisis enough to warrant a “state of emergency declaration.” But, when it is a public policy issue not merely in one or two cities, and not merely in one or two states, it is clear that local governments cannot solve this problem on their own. There are deeper structural issues that have to be addressed by state governments in association with the federal government too.

It is unfortunate that the election season underway has not addressed real and urgent issues like urban homelessness. In a democracy, it is through politics that we establishing priorities on issues deserving our collection action. But, the campaigns and debates have rarely been about such compelling issues. Instead, we have been verbally assaulted with inanities like the size of a man’s fingers as evidence of hyper-masculinity and virility.

Thus, after almost four decades since those teenage years halfway around the world, I continue to be puzzled that a rich country has so many homeless people and, more importantly, its citizens even seem to be ok with it. I suppose the more things change, the more they do stay the same!

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