September 23, 2014

Homeless People? They Don’t even Faze Us.


He stalked through Harvard Square, approaching one homeless person after another, asking their orders for ice cream.

Between the beginning and end of the summer, Avi must have gained back 30 of the 100 pounds he had previously lost. And he still had credit on his ice cream account that he was now giving away.

As we worked our way between homeless friend and ice cream shop, and then back again, he waved his arms and staggered, like some mad Indian rapper.

Avi is a brilliant comedian, who weaves tales of adolescent masturbation into practical wisdom wisdom teachings. He had rejected the Ivy League to raise money in a phone bank for progressive causes. And both of us had independently chosen to befriend the homeless over the more ambitious Harvard students, as it seemed the only human thing amidst such outrageous inequality.

Upon returning to America from a summer in Europe and the Middle East, a few things stood out about this nation. Compared with the police in Israel, Palestine, Serbia, and Turkey, American cops are fat and ugly and have terrible manners. Americans just might have the worst aesthetic sense of any people anywhere. The rich and teeming diversity of major American cities is a wonder of the world we would do well to embrace.

And economic inequality is ruining the country.

The problem with economic inequality is not merely that some people are rich at the expense of others.

Shelf after shelf of studies, in one field after another, now demonstrate that economic inequality makes everyone worse off. According to Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, in their groundbreaking study, The Spirit Level, economic inequality is correlated with higher murder rates, higher infant mortality, higher depression, suicide, obesity, cancer, heart disease and incarceration.

It is not just the poor who suffer more of these maladies in unequal societies. Relative to their counterparts in more equal societies, the wealthy also suffer more in highly unequal countries like America.

When the poor compare their lives to those who are comparatively wealthy, they tend to feel that they are missing out on the good things in life. They lack access to the good restaurants and clubs and neighborhoods. But even worse, they lack access to the spas and yoga classes, the self help seminars and university educations.

Their inability to access the most humanizing aspects of modern culture leaves them feeling less than human.

Thus, the poor come to experience themselves as inadequate.

These feelings gnaw at them and become a core source of anxiety. The anxiety drives them into depression and eating disorders, drug abuse, violence, and diseases of stress. And these tendencies all too often further entrench them in a vicious circle poverty.

Americans have somehow become accustomed to mobs of homeless people.

The Palestinian West Bank, where people who slip through the cracks are taken care of by extensive family networks, had no homeless. The much more equal Netherlands, where they are cared for by the state, appeared to have very few. And the more equal, former communist Serbia also seemed relatively free of homeless people.

There was a relaxed and easy friendliness about the people of these places, as if a core anxiety that we take for granted in America was simply unknown.

But the homeless in America are like shadows living among us.

They are shadows in the sense that we do not want to see their faces, both because they are a sign of our failure as a society and because they represent our own personal fears of failure in a largely unforgiving society. Nor do we really know what to do with them.

So they fill the interstices of our cities, taking up spare benches, urinating behind buildings, setting up camp in public parks. And all of this destroys our public spaces, pushing the rest of us further into privatized spaces to which the poor lack access.

Like strangers in a strange land, the homeless must break the law just to live.

And so we have come to see this whole class of people as somehow living outside of the law altogether. The homeless now exist in a world apart. Some of our friends that night had dropped out, some suffered from mental illnesses, and some from alcoholism. They all seemed out of key and marching to the beat of their own drummers. But Avi paced himself, producing some ingenious mishmash of purely American, atonal and arrhythmic jazz.

One of his friends had scored a big tray of Chinese food, from a restaurant that had just closed for the night. He was sharing it with anyone who cared to partake. And for a brief moment it seemed the poor were the only people on that crowded sidewalk who were smiling.

The poor must share, while the rich contract into their own private worlds.

Holding these two spaces together has become increasingly like spanning heaven and earth. And in the wide skies that lie between the two, perhaps we will find both the tragedy and salvation of the American scene.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Sascha Kohlmann/Flickr

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