If you live in affluent neighborhoods you might have conditioned yourself to ignore the significant sector of US society that gets in your face by showing they’re poor, suffering from disease and acute angst – if not worse.
Sure, plenty of tree-lined, suburban streets contain apparently normal, satisfied men and women who work and take children to school. Advertisers understand that underneath the "normal" exterior, these people have anxieties. They prey upon fragile middle class publics by selling them "relief," from their physical and psychic "pain."
When a "normal person" confronts a "homeless one," the "normal" might well say "there but for the grace of God go I." "I see those people [homeless] and I buy books like on how to increase my financial intelligence quota," an acquaintance told me. "They scare me." Yet, Hollywood and television continue to use stereotyped middle class characters to display "The Real America" – the country George Bush sells to the world in his speeches. This made-up America faces "a security threat," from which "Homeland Security" will protect. Sell that to the homeless!
When mass media chatterers raise abstractions – like is the working class bitter, should candidates wear flag pins or will withdrawal from Iraq mean less security? – desperately poor people shake their heads and laugh. Security means a bed, a roof over it, and a minimal and healthy meal, plus occasional access to medical care.
On the corner of High Street and Bancroft, in East Oakland, California – and similar corners through the country – another America vibrates with angst. As I drove my wife to work on April 25, 22 young men, all Latinos (from Mexico or Central America) shivered in the morning cold waiting for someone to choose them for a day’s menial work. On nearby corners dozens more try to pass the idle time by talking, day-dreaming of their village, their family or the possibility that a man with a pick up truck will stop and say: "Yard work."
Jornaleros or day workers abound in cities through the country. Those that get work fear they’ll get mugged by crack heads en route to their boarding houses where they share rooms with up to seven other men. They are not eligible for unemployment insurance. Some of the formally unemployed sign up for benefits; others have used them up. Some get depressed.
Before Bear Stearns imploded, 200 of its executives arrived each day in a chauffer-driven limo. At the end of the day, the gas guzzling mobile comfort lounges awaited these important mortgage dealers. Each executive earned – a strange word that hardly applies to them – more in one day than most of the jornaleros truly earn in two years. Top executives received an average of approximately $10 million in 2006.
Driving east on Bancroft, one meets the shopping cart brigade. Scores of African Americans push Safeway wagons filled with cans and bottles to redeem them at the recycling plant. Under this merchandise they found in dumpsters, they keep their meager belongings that all street people must guard during the day.
The rare multi-service outreach agency where my wife works tries to meet the rudimentary health and social needs of some poor residents of this enormous Alameda County neighborhood. The majority have no other access to medical care other than those provided by County emergency rooms. Bush doesn’t not acknowledge the daily "drop ins" by young women, mostly African American and Latina, who use the East Oakland Center. It helps them survive each day in the land of the free and home of the brave. Some have served in Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Afghanistan and Iraq and, because they could not readjust to civilian life, they depend on the generosity of those they beg from and the waning publicly supported institutions that still offer some sustenance.
"2.3 to 3.5 million people are homeless at some point during an average year," reports the National health Care for the Homeless Council. 13.5 million have experienced "literal homelessness" at least once. http://www.nhchc.org/Publications/basics_of_homelessness.html
An estimated one third of street-lovers suffer from chronic physical illness. Another one-third have mental illnesses. Almost one-half have current or past drug or alcohol addictions. Communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, ravage the homeless. Street people also suffer from countless varieties of infections in addition to violence-induced trauma. Their conditions of life often expose them to unbearable cold and rain, states the Council web site.
I see Jayce holding a "help" sign near the freeway on ramp. He wears clean but shabby clothes and sports a metal peg leg. A ratty dog sits next to him. A few people offer him coins. Most don’t even look at him.
He makes me uncomfortable. His health problems are worse than mine. Street people have up to six times more medical issues than people who have homes. Jayce sleeps in an abandoned vehicle or under the freeway on cold damp ground, covered with patched blankets and quilts. His leg pains – and heroine addiction – will probably get more acute. Average life expectancy for a street person like Jayce is less than 50.
36% of the homeless consist of families with kids. Almost 1.5 million American children spend part of their year without living in a home. Some find shelters; others exist in cars or abandoned vehicles and in city parks and untended green areas. Almost 7 million kids had no health coverage in 2007, the year Bush vetoed the Children’s Health Coverage bill. These kids join 47 million more Americans who have no health coverage.
The Census Bureau lists some 37 million Americans living in dire poverty, deprived of health care, shelter, and sufficient food; 12.3 percent of the population.
What a contrast to George Bush’s people. In 2006, the elite one percent of the population sucked in some 22 percent of US income. In 2006, 1 percent of Americans absorbed almost 15% of the nation’s income. According to a 2007 report by the Institute for Policy Studies, United for a Fair Economy and Citizens for Tax Justice, 46 of the 275 largest companies paid no federal income tax in 2003. Each year, Bush has cut taxes for the wealthiest. In 2005, the bottom 50% of the population received less than 13% of the nation’s created values. (Reuters, October 12, 2007)
In the Berkeley or Piedmont Hills, one could live without witnessing any of the horror of what goes on in the flats. The former Bear Stearns execs in NY didn’t have to see the thousands of beggars and street people. The sat back in their limos and read the Wall St. Journal or watched child porn on the flat screen TVs in the back seat while the chauffer maneuvered through NY traffic en route to posh Long Island or Dutchess County mansions.
The only contact the rich have with the poor is master-servant relations – and even these are mediated through underlings hired to protect the sensibilities of the super rich from the sights and odors that emanate from the poor.
Compare the statistics, the sights and sounds, and the reality of the poor on the street to the idealized America that Bush promotes, a democratic, fair, just society. What a gap between reality and political discourse!
Congress will soon approve another monstrously large bill to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and shell out some $700 billion for overall defense. Don’t most voters think that the priorities of those running the country and aspiring for office might have gone very wrong? Has the time come for the public to demonstrate in the streets, through emails and even letters, that the campaigners should stop their puerile nonsense: the poor people are in crisis that has little or nothing to do with Iraq, Iran or Islam. The so-called Christian candidates should cast aside their ambition and instead of attacking the truly well-meaning Reverend Wright, focus on what both and Luke and Matthew said: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:34, Matthew 6-19:24)
Bush and his predecessors to a lesser extent have used this country’s treasure for war. None of the candidates have yet talked about changing the current priorities, although they all refer to themselves as deeply religious. Have we reached the point where Christianity stands for war and destruction, where its advocates eschew real need? Too bad George Stephanopoulos didn’t ask that question at the ABC debate instead of his carping on Barack’s flag tie pins.
Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. He received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from Chile for human rights work. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, is available on DVD at [email protected]