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Our Nation’s Priorities: Homelessness vs. Political Bickering

Why This Election Matters

October 28, 2020

A few days, maybe a week ago, perhaps, I was on my way home from my job at Anodyne Artists Company, where I work as an actor and help with the development of shows and our organization’s goals. I was nearly home, riding in the car with a cohort when I saw the small but nevertheless prominent homeless encampment situated on the side of the freeway by a bridge. I am appalled by this. But while I am appalled at the lack of affordable housing, and more importantly, security and a decent quality of life for an increasing number of Minnesotans, something else looms in my mind, that is more appalling. It is an existential question, for everyone, and I mean everyone, in this country. Whether you are the occupant of the White House or a student at Century finishing up or even starting their degree, this question is of the essence. In my opinion, it cannot be ignored. The situation looming in my mind is the election, and the question is, “Have we got our priorities straight?” It breaks my heart that homelessness is reaching such an obvious breaking point, while people are spending all their time pointing fingers at each other and getting emotional over trivial matters.

Imagine a world where everybody had a home. Where everybody had some kind of secure, safe housing. Where instead of attacking each other, people were building homes and helping people with their needs. This sounds like a fantasy, a utopian world where everyone gets along well, and everybody sings “Kumbaya”. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. While increasing amounts of people struggle with the basic societal concept of having access to shelter, one of the most basic needs that exists in this world, political rivalries and bipartisan sparring and shouting matches dominate the headlines amidst this upcoming election. While the city of Minneapolis figures out what to do with an ever-growing homeless encampment within Powderhorn Park, while people are camping on the highway, America is embroiled in internecine conflicts regarding the ego of the current president and his opponent. And yes, I am getting political here, but only to prove a point. That point is, there are so many actual crises, including homelessness, being swept under the rug, and how we deal or not deal with those issues will have greater implications than the sole fact of who is in office. Whether you support Trump or Biden, these issues are far greater than a matter of who gets in office.

Some of you may be asking, why should I care about homelessness? Why should I care if people are out on the streets? I have a home. Such thoughts are indicative of a particular mindset, that it is a marginalized problem, that it is something that only a tiny minority of people are facing, that there is no way a college student could be going to school and be homeless all the while. But that is far from the case. Often when we think of homelessness, we think only of people living on the streets, drunkards and slovenly people who haven’t shaved in months or longer, people with ugly personalities and people who fit the description of the term ‘gristleback’, meaning that they are very rough people. Even I have been guilty of assuming this. According to Century Sociology professor Keith Cunnien, there are reasons for this. People don’t come up with these assumptions out of nowhere. Rather, they come up out of our own cultural biases, specifically, the biases of how we view wealth and class. We view wealth as something to uphold, and poverty something to avoid. We also look at things from a view of classism, the haves and have nots, so to speak, and view the have nots as having a personal issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea of separating people by class is baked into our society just like everything else. It is systemic.

After speaking with Michele Jersak, the director of the resource center at Century, I have received much insight into the problems that people face with housing. You see, homelessness is much more than just not having a home. According to Jersak, there are many faces that represent this phenomenon. It is the Century students with children who are barely holding on, it is the Century students who live in an abusive home situation and can’t get out.  And after talking to a fellow Century student, it became apparent that there is more to it than even that, among them the veteran population, not to mention those who struggle with alcoholism, mental health, and/or drug addiction. Century doesn’t have very many veterans according to this person, but they do have a small presence. But from what it sounds like, veterans face a strong difficulty with being homeless. These are some of the many faces of homelessness. In fact, also according to Michele Jersak, a better term would be home insecurity.

There are many factors that contribute to this. Among them are rising rent costs, the looming threat of evictions, various types of poverty that can affect not only the quality of life but how they manage crises such as homelessness. And it is next to impossible for the majority of Americans to find affordable housing. I am fortunate enough to have housing despite being ‘poorer than a church mouse’. I know man people who are even more fortunate than I am, that can work from home and attend classes online that cost 500 dollars, and generally get on with their lives. But that is not the majority reality. Everyone wants to be well off, with a well-paying job. Unless they work in IT or something like that, most people can expect to be working two to three jobs just to pay rent…

Not to say that I am immune from being homeless. If I wasn’t living in a group home, I would most likely be homeless, already. I may be an actor, but my position as an artist is precarious at best, as of right now, and the future of the theatre company I work for is even more precarious, not to mention I only get an incredibly meager check twice a month from the government after rent is taken out of it. So, it appears to me that people are not overtly outraged at how this crisis, (which is not new, by the way) is worsening. And this disconnect is all-pervasive. For instance, there is an actual article from the New York Times which is titled, “Trump expresses shock at homelessness, a phenomenon that ‘started two years ago’”. I didn’t know what to think when I saw this.  As I said, homelessness is not new. It’s very much a long-running theme in the plot lines of different countries around the world. But this time it has hit the U.S hard, for a variety of reasons. And MN is slowly but surely seeing an increase. Four years ago, when I first visited D.C, I did not know what to think about the rampant homelessness there. Now, the same thing is happening, even in my own neighborhood. And the statistics are alarming, in and of themselves.  According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, “As of January 2019, Minnesota had an estimated 7,977 experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that total, 1,028 were family households, 297 were Veterans, 685 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 1,745 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.” Also, according to the same source, “Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2017-2018 school year shows that an estimated 16,698 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Of that total, 490 students were unsheltered, 3,750 were in shelters, 1,193 were in hotels/motels, and 11,265 were doubled up.” These are not small numbers for Saint Paul. I personally have borne witness to this. When I was in the crisis center this year in June, I met people who were literally living in hotels, perhaps even somewhat habitually, because they had nowhere else to go and the hotels kept offering ridiculously cheap rates. And the situation has only gotten more visible, more obvious, since then.

Homelessness is a unique breed of social inequality. It knows no boundaries as a phenomenon. Like autism or the coronavirus, it can potentially target people from any background. As such, it is a complex phenomenon: The only underlying theme of it is desperation. But that desperation comes from many sources. It comes from the pandemic itself, from rising rent costs and the lack of affordable housing, from people losing their jobs. It comes from people being evicted, sometimes for reasons that are out of their control, such as not being able to pay rent, and sometimes it’s because of situations that have gotten out of hand. It’s not always the ‘hobos’ and the drug addicts and the mentally ill who are homeless, despite what the Occupant seemed to think in the aforementioned article. Based on what the article described, Trump seems to have a very generalized and stereotyped view of homelessness. That’s not to say that the problems of drug abuse and mental illness are not prevalent. Oftentimes, these various issues coexist with one another. But my point is that the Occupant completely misses the point that these are people. And people tend to be more complex than other people give them credit for. As much as we would like to omit these people from our lives, to assume that they are a disturbance at best, and unimaginably uncivilized at worst, we have to admit that they are here to stay until we can figure out what to do to stop this from happening. It’s not about merely offering a sympathetic hand and saying, “Look at these poor homeless people, we need to help them!” That is not how advocacy works, in my opinion.

I believe that as a country, we are too focused on the wrong things. As many of you know, and in case you don’t know, there is an upcoming election looming on the horizon. Now, rather than focus on who is going to take care of concrete priorities, politics has become an unfriendly competition. Indeed, politics has become almost like an intense sports rivalry, where, regardless of what actions are taken, people stubbornly cling to their held views and opinions rather than checking the facts. If you watch the news, no matter what you watch, whether it is Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, OAN, or even online commentaries and comedic news shows, such as The Young Turks, a popular online political channel, or Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, two noted political satirists, you will be confronted with various kinds of biases and opinions being spoon-fed to you, rather than being lead to your own conclusions based on concrete cold facts.  In fact, the more I think about this, the more I realize I am shaped by my biases. But if you look at the facts, it quickly becomes apparent that whatever side of the spectrum you are on, this is a sham, a front for all the bigger problems that are facing this country, among them homelessness.

After all this pontificating, let’s take a hard look at the election, specifically, who is running and what they have said or not said about homelessness. On one side, you have Joe Biden, whom one side paints as a radical socialist, despite being neither of those things in reality. His running mate, Kamala Harris, is a biracial woman of Jamaican and South Indian descent. On the other side, you have Donald Trump, the Occupant of the White House. What have these people said or done about homelessness? What are their positions on homelessness? I’d like to talk about Biden and Harris first, since they are the ones with the most comprehensive plans regarding this crisis, relatively speaking. Biden has laid out in his official website the plans and principles for what he believes in regarding homelessness. His proposals and policies cover a wide range of umbrella issues regarding homelessness, among them ending redlining, which is a practice used to essentially zone out people of color from living in certain areas, and other similar practices. He also commits to a wide variety of financial policies, including down payment assistance via tax credits, as well as affordable housing solutions, which are listed in rather vague terms. Indeed, if there is one aspect of his statements that seems consistent, it is their vagueness. For instance, he also says he will “launch a comprehensive plan to end homelessness”, without really detailing what that means. That could mean anything. But then he goes into further detail regarding the plans, which is encouraging. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of those plans, but I am glad that he is at least considering many things. But one thing I notice is that he is attacking policies, making broad proposals rather than talking about people. Ending redlining is great and all that, but what are you going to do for people, more specifically? My point is, it all seems detached from reality and therefore sounds good…on paper. Now, I know that’s exactly what it is – ideas on paper. But what I would like to see is, “The Biden Administration pledges to spend 1 billion dollars (or whatever amount they decide) into building affordable housing zones across the country.” Not just any old affordable housing design either. The last time governmental policies took this form of action, we ended up with the Cabrini Greens, the infamous ‘project’ in Chicago that was a living hell for people who lived there. I know this because I know a person who grew up in the Cabrini Greens, and it was absolutely horrific for them. So, what we need is a nice neighborhood where people can affordably and comfortably live in, not some ghetto like the Cabrini Greens or even the ‘Sanctuary Districts’ featured in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It remains to be seen if that will be the case.

As mentioned earlier, there is an election coming up. When you vote, that is the time to think about the issue of homelessness. It is expensive and impractical to keep people on the streets. Yet there is a huge struggle still. Therefore, now is the time to ask, what are our priorities? This is not a partisan issue. But there is more than that. Homelessness is stigmatized to an incredible degree. Police even take advantage of them at times because they are vulnerable. Now is the time for Century students and other communities to think about what they can do. According to the aforementioned Century student, there are some resources available, such as MAC-V for veterans. And there is a possible chance that the Student Senate will propose to buy Century Commons. If that happens, then potentially this as of now dilapidated space could be used for sheltering people. Yet this is not enough. Push to your lawmakers, advocate for change! When you hear someone say a homeless person is “disgusting, sick, nasty,” or anything else derogatory, put them in their place if you can, by reminding them they are people too. Again, I’ll ask this question: “Have we got our priorities straight?”

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