Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Homelessness, and Jails: The Cult of Vengeance
© by Mark Dempsey
The first rule of the Cult of Vengeance is the same as for Fight Club: Don’t talk about Fight Club. Don’t talk about the Cult of Vengeance either, and certainly never admit you’re a member, perhaps not even to yourself.
The Cult of Vengeance is a seldom-discussed part of our civic religion--the beliefs that bind our society together. It declares that people earn their circumstances. So the wealthy are, by the Cult’s lights, virtuous, while the poor and unfortunate have obviously offended some god, or force of nature and deserve their fate. Punishing them is really just giving them what they deserve. Meanwhile, those wealthy enough to be born on third base deserve to act like they hit a triple.
What can I say? It’s a cult, not science.
The Cult is particularly pernicious when public policy supports it. Sue Frost, my County Supervisor, says she agrees that the plight of the homeless is driven by public policies that include persecuting and evicting them from even the modest shelter they devise in our parks. Yet she recently wrote an editorial condemning the ninth circuit court of appeals for invalidating the County’s anti-camping ordinances. The court concluded the homeless qualify as part of the public entitled to use public spaces like parks.
Let’s grant that Ms. Frost has a tough job, providing public spaces for the entire public--even those whose feces and dirty needles are a health hazard. After conceding that public policy produced homelessness, she defended rousting the homeless out of parks, saying she's a good person despite that. She went on to cite her own charity, her belief in a god, and in the kind of merciful treatment that gives people second, third, and even fourth chances to redeem themselves.
But when it comes to public policy, the best she has to offer is criticism for that court decision. The County has never handled homelessness well, and has added 500 new beds for a homeless population that’s roughly 2,000 people larger this year.
Let’s ignore, for the moment, that Supervisor Sue can’t imagine providing porta-potties, or needle exchanges. Let’s even ignore that the Biblical injunction is not to forgive four times, it’s to forgive “seventy times seven” times, essentially treating people where they are, not where we would like them to be. Clearly she follows a different god.
What we really need to ask is whether the public would stand for a policy that, for just one example, picked up only 25% of the trash, leaving 75% to rot at the curb. I’d suggest that any place with enough spare cash to spend $89 million on an expanded jail -- as Sacramento County now proposes -- is less-than-motivated to make effective public policy dealing with the homeless, no matter how charitable are our individual policy makers. Only membership in the Cult of Vengeance could justify treating homeless people worse than we treat trash.
Enlightened self-interest that might motivate us to treat the homeless better since millions are no more than a bad disease or a mugging away from sleeping under a bridge. And other jurisdictions have demonstrated housing the homeless is actually cheaper than the costs of police and emergency room time. But the Cult of Vengeance deplores anything “free”... The poor and homelessness have obviously deserved their fate and must be punished! How else will they learn?
The Cult also justifies sweeping homelessness under the rug. As Ross Barkan says in the Baffler: “There is no need to remember the savage inequities that produce a society where a few individuals can amass billions while millions live in abject poverty. None of it is sustainable, but all of it can be forgotten.”
Ms. Frost suggests we “find a way to stop the drugs at our boarders [sic]” to deal with addiction that produces homelessness. That kind of dog whistle xenophobia sounds fair at first, but domestic firms like the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma and its opioid products are among the worst actors here. How about removing the beam from our own eye before we pick the mote out of our neighbors? The Cult avoids acknowledging its own failings at all costs.
The opioid-producing Sacklers are not the first to try to make a buck by taking advantage of people. In 2007-8 Wall Street created homeless people with loan and foreclosure fraud. None of those Wall Street criminals are in jail either while we continue to harass and offer half baked solutions to those suffering from their actions. Perhaps its just my own Cult of Vengeance values speaking, but it does seem awfully unfair.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the favelas (we would call them homeless camps) have even worse public health concerns since people don’t just camp, they raise their families there. Picking up their trash is impossible because streets are too narrow for trucks. The response from the City of Curitiba: send trucks to offer to swap a bag of food for a bag of trash. Result: No more trash in the favela. Remember: Curitiba is much poorer than the U.S. and it still manages to make public resources available for its poor. Or would we rather have excuses? I know the Cult would!
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