Today’s blog post is a collaboration that was the brainchild of my friend Cecile Pineda (author of Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World among many other books). She offers a historical perspective stemming from a trip to India, and she invited her friend Mimi German, co-founder of Jason Barns Landing, a transitional community in Portland, Oregon, to contribute an account of how activists are addressing homelesness in their communities. At Cecile’s invitation, I contributed statistics about the magnitude of our failure to guarantee housing as a human right in the biggest, wealthiest empire ever.
What India Can Teach Us About Homelessness
by Cecile Pineda
(Fact checking by Srinivas Reddy)
I arrived in India in 1988 after a 16-hour flight, my body so allergic to aniline dye, it had broken out in hives. I was met at 2 AM by a turbaned taxist who attempted to take me to my “hotel.”
I was not too tired, and my body not too riddled with hives that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. We must have travelled many miles on the approach to Bombay proper. They were all lined with shanty towns, “towns” people had cobbled together from corrugated roofing plastic, corrugated cardboard, and wooden planks that had seen much better wear. I asked my taxist about them.
Welcome to India
My taxist replied that they were bull dosed at regulator intervals, turned to dust essentially, although the people living there had nowhere left to go. Within less than a day, my well-meaning taxist assured me, they would be rebuilt and life there would go on.
By now it was close to 3 AM. My “hotel” (which turned out to be something of a flop house although the people there would take good care of me, as my friend Pearl, an actress with the Bombay Talkies would assure me) was off Ashoke Kumar in a little side street which for one block only had been whimsically named Jump Rope Walk. After multiple tries not finding it, my taxist proceeded to take me to the middle class hotel district where at that hour, every doorman was sleeping on the threshold and didn’t want to be disturbed. We had tried several threshold-sleeping doormen before I began wondering why I let myself be pushed about by this upstart taxist of 25. “Take me to the Taj,” I said. Replied he, ”you can’t afford the Taj.” I summoned my most persuasive tone, “take me to the Taj, there’s eight rupees in it for you.”
Although by then it was approaching 4 AM, at the Taj I knew there’d be a telephone. I phoned. “Oh, Madam, we have been waiting for you. Just lift the corrugated iron gate,” and the voice described how Jump Rope Walk was to be found. “It’s just off Ashoke Kumar.”
When I lifted that impossibly heavy gate, I found a dhoti- clad boy waiting for me. The foyer was without light of any kind but he didn’t seem to care. He disdained carrying my bags so, flashlight held securely in my mouth, we started the ascent of what turned out to be seven floors of factories before reaching the “hotel.” On the first riser, I felt the stair move. Someone was sleeping there. The “rent” was one ana a night. Each sleeping person had paid one ana to sleep on those stairs, all seven flights, every single riser occupied.
While I waited for USIA to make ready to hear me read from my newly Viking-published novel, Frieze, I made the short trip to Aurangabad (site of the Buddhist Ajanta caves, and the Hindu Ellora Caves). There was only one train, and it left late at night. Arrived on the platform, I stepped over hundreds if not thousands of sleeping bodies wrapped in burlap all huddled together as I imagine a Middle Passage tight-pack might have been.
The “Golden” Age of The Maharajas
Even before the Age of the Maharajahs, the 9th century Cholas of South India would think nothing of gifting a human being who happened to be a skilled stone carver to the Sanjaya dynast to decorate his harem in what is now known as Java. Frieze, my second published novel, chronicles the story of one such carver.
By the Age of the Maharajas (17th century to the end of the Raj in 1947) with the help of the British and Dutch East India Company, stealing from the common people become predictably routine. Maharajas made war against other Maharajahs for territorial gains, kept entire stables just for housing war elephants, erected forts, temples and palaces, harems for wives and concubines, sometimes as many as 1000 (according to rumor they kept them satisfied, each and every one) and established foundations to benefit widows and orphans.
In the 18th century Rajput King Sawal Jai Singh even built the Jantar Mantar, an observatory located in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur. Some Maharajas built multiple royal cities. Akbar built Agra Fort and the royal city of Fatepur Sikri
based on a saint’s guarantee that he would sire a desired male heir.
The city would run out of water ten years later, but it was Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, who took his erection complex to a whole new level, but building the Taj beggared Shah Jahan’s treasury so Aurangzeb after declaring his father incompetent, had him imprisoned in Agra Fort. He made sure there would be no more erection complex as long as his father lived. On a clear day Shah Jahan could still admire the Taj from its distant view across the Yamuna River till eight years later when he died.
By the 19th century India had sunk into a state of gothic decay. When the Maharajah of Bangalore built his palace, its walls were studded with precious stones and in true Trumpian style, he had it fitted it with solid gold furniture.
In cahoots with the British, all the wealth the Maharajas managed to accumulate they did by stealing from the common people. Which is why after 300 years of stealing, you feel stairs that move in the dark, you step over people wrapped in burlap sleeping in tight-pack formation along railway stations platforms, and you see miles and miles of cobbled together shanty towns piling up along the highways in all of India’s big cities, of which Bombay is but one example.
What Three Hundred Years of Stealing from the American Taxpayer by a Congress Held Captive by the Pentagon Will Look Like
The Pentagon is not interested in building temples or palaces, some in far better taste than Bangalore’s. It isn’t interested in founding institutions to benefit all the widows and orphans it immiserates throughout the world. It’s only interested in more silos from which to launch intercontinental missiles, more bunker busters, more supersonic bombers, more drones, more trident-armed nuclear submarines, more tanks, more weapons of mass destruction, more nuclear bombs, more pyroclastic ordnance to use in its covert nuclear wars.
Which is why people still wait for state-subsidized child care, why people have yet to see the dawn of state-subsidized Medicare-for-All, why the rights of women to make their own decisions about the use of contraception and abortion is still being contested (where else would the Pentagon get the cannon fodder manpower for operating all that military hardware), why people are forced to live in tents all along highways and railway rights of way of the world’s Number One nation, why incarcerated people are forced to work for slave wages for major corporations (Victoria’s Secrets, Aunt Jemima, Tampax Tampons, Crest Toothpaste, and Angel Soft Toilet Paper to name but a few of hundreds) and what in true slave patrol style, mostly Black, Brown, Asian and trans people are routinely sacrificed by Israeli-trained police.
Just imagine what 300 more years of stealing by a Congress held captive by the Pentagon might look like. But as it stands immiseration and homelessness in the U. S. of A., despite their swelling numbers, remain in their infancy.
Homelessness by the numbers
by Lisa Savage
(Lisa was chosen by Cecile as her successor blog writer.)
The United States is believed to have more than half a million people unhoused. Accurately counting people experiencing homelessness is challenging, and the most recent effort at the national level dates back to January 2020. The SARS-COV-2 pandemic that followed complicated counting, resulted in innovative shelter arrangements using vacant hotel rooms, and may have lowered the actual number unhoused in part due to a moratorium on evictions, increased unemployment compensation, and limited cash subsidies.
“Over a period lasting more than a decade, the nation has not made any real progress in reducing the number of Americans at risk of homelessness.”
State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition
But it’s likely that the dip in total numbers unhoused was temporary. Evictions and foreclosures resumed and cash subsidies dried up under the Biden administration, and medical debt in the absence of universal health care continues as the leading cause of default on homeowner mortgages. Housing costs, both rent and purchase prices, are now skyrocketing, pricing people out of housing they have relied upon for years. As of March 2020 home prices in the U.S. had risen 21% over the previous year.
“A clear question is whether or not it should take a public health emergency to galvanise governments and support systems into making an intense effort to end street homelessness.”
Homelessness and the pandemic (March 2022)
Now that inflation is galloping while wages fail to keep up, we can expect even more people will be unable to obtain housing they can afford in the coming years.
Who can afford housing?
The uber wealthy and those who serve them in government seem to have no difficulty supporting several mansions in different locations.
The increase in net worth of the 1% has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
“As the U.S. crosses the grim milestone of 1 million deaths from Covid-19, U.S. billionaires have seen their combined wealth rise over $1.7 trillion, a gain of over 58 percent during the pandemic.”
Inequality.org (May 2022)
And specifically the war in Ukraine has proven highly profitable for big weapons manufacturers, with most posting record profits. This should surprise no one paying attention to their having been called to the White House for a classified planning session and the U.S. sending roughly $53 billion of U.S. public funds for “aid” to Ukraine, i.e. mostly weapon systems.
Meanwhile President Biden tweets every day that the U.S. economy has never been better (and is ratioed daily on Twitter for these absurd claims).
Most of us have anecdotal experience of the burgeoning tents and encampments of people who are unhoused in cities across the nation. From Oakland, California to Portland, Maine those who work with the unhoused say their numbers are increasing rapidly.
Much has been made of Russian oligarchs and, particularly, their yachts. What of U.S. oligarchs? Senator Joe Manchin has a houseboat so lavish it might reasonably be considered a home, and it’s hard to determine how many other mansions Manchin owns.
Will the oligarchs of the U.S. go the way of the Maharajas of India? Stay tuned.
Housing the Houseless
by Mimi German
(Cecile’s note: I first met Mimi at an anti-nuclear conference at San Lius Obispo, the site of the Diablo Canyon NPP bordering the sea.)
As a volunteer advocate for unhoused people and a co-founder of Jason Barns Landing, a transitional community for unhoused people, how I think we can help the “homeless crisis,” my response is two-fold. First, house people. The second is, love more.
We know that we can house people if we choose to house people. Inventory is available if you know where to look and you understand how to use money in a way that actually benefits those who are its intended population.
A few months ago, Street Roots, our local newspaper run by houseless people, created a multi-step response regarding how to house our unhoused neighbors. It’s brilliant and chock full of common sense. From their statement, “The humanitarian crisis on our streets requires urgent action. Our homelessness crisis is caused by a lack of affordable, accessible housing, and it is intensified by oppressive forces like racial injustice, health inequities and profound wealth inequality.”
We can do better by placing people “in already-built motels and existing housing, which can be quickly converted into the supported permanent housing that people need and want.”
Many people still think that building more shelters is the answer. Shelters do absolutely nothing toward getting people into housing and off the streets. They are too often, dangerous places for women, places high in theft, have addiction barriers, have no support services available, are overcrowded, and shelters have rules regarding open and close times that do not work for everyone, including mandatory rules regarding exiting the shelter all day long from the early hours of morning until 8 pm at night.
A further response is to “recognize the leadership of autonomous villages governed by people experiencing homelessness.” Outreach to organized villages and camps working on their autonomous structure to ensure toilets, dumpsters and trash hauling, food support, and medical services along with housing advocacy, gets to these camps. Support the efforts of the unhoused rather than disrupt or ignore them.
What we’ve done in the recent past is build tarpees for folks to live in, designed by Paul Paul Cheyok’ten Wagner — a member of the Saanich First Nations of Vancouver Island and an artist and inventor. He designed a contemporary teepee that costs thousands of dollars less than a traditional teepee and uses materials found in any hardware store. We discussed the tarpee idea with the camp and they asked to have them built. We agreed that no money would ever be exchanged for the tarpees and that we would make every concerted to house BIPOC houseless peoplefirst.
The Houseless Industrial Complex (HIC) needs to be taken out at the knees, buckled to the ground and boot-stomped until its dead. It is because the HIC makes so money off of the unhoused, that we have unhoused folks on the street. It’s cheaper to house people than pay the emergency room visits for each person. But without houseless people, the ‘sweeps’ companies, paid to sweep away the unhoused people from the street and steal their belongings, would be out of hundreds of millions of dollars. In Portland, Rapid Response is the largest contractor with the city. They conduct sweeps. They employ people who have just been released from the Prison Industrial Complex to do the dirty work of sweeping people. The Joint Office of Houseless Services, the pairing of the County and City ‘efforts’ to house people, exists only if houseless people exist. The JOHS makes billions of dollars to make sure houseless people continue to exist rather than to be housed.
Mitigation starts with love and a true understanding of what is needed by unhoused people. How do we get to that understanding? By listening to the people who are in need of housing. We can house everyone over a relatively short period of time. From there, we can bring in the support needed. We need transitional housing that leads directly to permanent housing. The steps are clear. The money is here and has been voted on. At least in Portland, Oregon where I live. We can move forward with the 3000 Challenge or just follow its guidelines. Or we can do nothing and perpetuate the inhumanity of local and State governments across the US. Which is it going to be? I choose housing. I choose love.