Last year, UN Human Rights Rapporteur Leilani Farha visited the San Francisco Bay Area. Her mission was to observe and report on the conditions of homeless people there. What did she find? Well, not only did she declare the homeless situation in the USA a violation of basic human rights and place the conditions on par with the slums of third world countries like Mexico, Delhi and Belgrade, but she noticed a level of cruelty toward the homeless “that I don’t think I’ve seen,” in her own words.
As a freelance journalist who has spent most of the last decade in Latin America, I can tell you it’s true. I have seen worse poverty in the USA than anywhere else in the world. Straight up. I know that’s hard for many Americans to believe. So, don’t just take my word for it.
According to Fortune Magazine, the USA is both the richest and the most unequal country in the world. Research shows that while one in three Americans are among the richest 10 percent of people on the globe, one in seven is among the bottom 10 percent. That’s right, nearly 50 million Americans are among the poorest of the poor on earth.
When it comes to homelessness, the USA does not simply ignore it. Rather, we actively punish it in ways that simply do not exist in other countries. That’s the cruel part that Farha was talking about. Here are three stark examples of how we deprive homeless people of their basic right to live daily in the richest country in the history of countries. If it pisses you off, good. Let’s do something to change it.
1. The Right to Shelter
Since the dawn of humanity, humans have had the right to make a shelter to protect themselves from the elements. Even birds make nests, beavers build dams and ground hogs dig holes. In so called “poor” countries that I have been living in, from Bolivia to Guatemala, you always see shantytowns on the outskirts of modern cities. This is where informal shelters have been constructed. Even in rich countries like Brazil, you have favelas right in the center of expensive cities like Rio de Janiero, many of which have been there for decades.
While most shantytowns are constructed illegally, and often face opposition, many eventually get legal rights to exist. Some even become stable communities.
Americans often gasp at the sight of shantytowns when they see them in person or in photos. But, it’s important to note these people actually have it better than our poorest citizens. In the USA, you do not see shantytowns or favelas. Instead, you see people sleeping on the street — in doorways, in parks, under freeway over passes. Ask yourself a basic question. Where would you rather sleep: between four walls or out on the street?
The answer is pretty obvious.
For the poorest of the poor — and remember, the USA is home to millions of them — a homemade shelter is all that stands between life and death. While this is respected to differing degrees in other countries, in the land of the free it is not tolerated. Homeless people in the USA constantly face eviction from and destruction of their informal housing. This happens even when there is no shelter space available for them. Not only are they denied shelter, they are also denied sleep, which takes a serious toll on both mental and physical health.
This is torture. Worse, it is often a death sentence. And homeless people are dying in record numbers, folks.
2. The Right to Make a Living
Despite the hype about being a free market, the United States actually does not allow the kind of small entrepreneurship that most of the poorest people in Latin American countries count on to survive. I’m talking about selling things like food or crafts in the street. Or even in designated market buildings, a phenomenon that simply does not exist here. Yet it is found everywhere, all over the world, and is in fact the real “free market.”
In Colombia, for example, I have a good friend who sells coconuts in the street right in the center of Bogota, the country’s 10-million strong modern capital. He does so well some days that he buys me drinks later when I run into him at the salsa club. True story. While he is not homeless, he would be if he could not run his own little business in public spaces.
While many people like to blame addiction, the real number one cause of homelessness in the USA is loss of a job. With nearly 80 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the truth is that homelessness is closer than many of us would like to admit.
But just as informal housing is banned in the USA, so is informal employment. How many of us would be able to simply go sell apples down at the mall? Or set up a booth in the neighborhood park where we serve hot chocolate, like so many people just south of the border do every day?
If you really think you are free, try buying a pack of cigarettes and then reselling them as singles. This is something that thousands of the poorest of the poor do every day in Latin America. You might want to ask Eric Garner how that went for him first.
3. The Right to Exist at All
It is one thing to do nothing in the face of the humanitarian crisis that is homelessness in the USA. And it is quite another to actively spend money to make these peoples’ lives as harsh as possible. But that’s what communities across the USA do every single day.
Not only are cities passing no loitering and sitting laws that target homeless people — it is illegal to simply sit on the sidewalk in more than half of U.S. cities, for example — there is a rise in actively putting in “hostile” or “defensive” public architecture designs.
From filling in the spaces under bridges, which homeless people often use for shelter from the rain and other elements, to installing sprinkler systems in awnings for no other use than to dowse people that try to rest under them, more and more creative ways to effectively torture homeless people keep getting invented. Even my hometown of San Francisco, supposedly the most progressive city in the nation (and also the richest), is full of everything from spiked planter boxes to benches with bars across them. This design restricts your sitting position and prevents laying down.
Meanwhile, NIMBY groups raise tens of thousands of dollars to prevent the construction of shelters and services for the homeless. And we are still debating whether its okay to give people on the street money, even though giving to the poor is mandated in every major religion in the world.
Just passing out food has been banned in cities across the country. Police arrest elderly pastors for simply feeding the hungry. I hate to break it to you, but that would never ever happen in Latin America, folks.
Let’s Solve This
Homelessness is the issue of our time. Socially, politically and ethically. Everyone from Aristotle to Ghandi has repeated the universal maxim that the greatness of a society rests on how well it treats its weakest members. Jesus made it crystal clear in his speech on the Sheep and the Goats, otherwise known as “The Judgement of the Nations.”
I wrote this article because I found many Americans simply do not know how badly homeless people are treated here. Too many people assume it’s not that bad and it’s much worse in other countries. So, let’s set that straight.
Imagine being one of the poorest people in the world in a society where not just everything is expensive, but your basic rights to shelter, work and even existence are denied. Think about it harder and you will realize that the basic rights denied to our homeless citizens are also denied to us. This is not just about them folks. It’s about us. We the people. So, let’s do something about it.
Originally published at https://invisiblepeople.tv on May 16, 2019.