There was a news item from Scotland last week. Homelessness there is now illegal. Here we would assume that means if you find a homeless guy, you lock him up. But that’s not what the Scots are doing.
In Scotland, if someone loses housing and is on the street through no fault of his or her own, the government has a legal obligation to get that person housed. The government is responsible. The new law even comes with resources. In that part of the world, laws like this are becoming the new normal.
Our new normal looks a bit different. In America, homelessness is about abandonment, social control and economic terrorism. Homelessness is part of what keeps us in line. It’s as common as dirt. We’re used to it, the idea scares us, and no one expects it to end anytime soon.
Homelessness is what happens when we quit the job we hate. Or when we won’t work two jobs that don’t pay enough to live on since we can’t find just one living-wage job.
It’s what happens when our bodies break down after a life of hard work that we can no longer do, and there’s little or nothing available to help.
It’s what happens when our families, stressed by poverty and overburdened by social isolation, break down and fly apart.
It’s what happens when our health care system fails us, and we’re either destroyed by debt or never got the help we needed in the first place.
It’s what happens when the small but critical piece of our lives — the prescription drug benefit, the disability payment, the housing subsidy, the few hundred or thousand dollars in help we need to get by since we're living on almost nothing — disappears with the latest austerity budget, and we finally fall.
So, when we protest against homelessness, we’re not just saying that there’s something wrong with the fact that people don’t have housing. We’re saying there’s something wrong with an economic and political system that tosses people to the wolves with such grinding regularity.
When we stand up for homeless folks, we’re standing up for everyone who has ever understood his or her own economic vulnerability and been afraid.
We don’t have to live like this.
Later this month, volunteers with the One Night Count of homeless people in King County will go out between midnight and 5 a.m. looking for the folks who aren’t inside. We’ll find them. We’re seeing the usual indicators of long-term economic stress. More homeless women and kids. More demand on the food banks. More people camped out in tents and cars. We’ve seen years of budget cuts and more are on the way soon.
On Jan. 25, the Friday morning after the count, Occupy CEHKC will make a simple statement on the steps of City Hall by banging a gong once for every person found outside the night before. We’re going to start at 9 a.m. If we can hit the gong once every five seconds, we should be able to finish in three or four hours.
When we’re quiet about homelessness, nothing changes. Help us make some noise.