In an uncharacteristic break from the focus on “Obamamania,” the mainstream media recently cast a cautious spotlight on the plight of America's “newly homeless” and a phenomenon that should send a chill through anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the Great Depression: the return of the shanty town.
According to conservative estimates, there are currently, over 12.5 million workers are looking for jobs in the U.S. As more and more workers fall victim to the current crisis of capitalism, losing their jobs and homes, overnight-shelters in major cities and small towns alike are crowded to capacity. Many workers and their families are left with no alternative other than to live out of cars or pitch a tent in one of the many new “tent cities” popping up across the United States.
Tent cities and homeless encampments have been reported all over the country in cities large and small such as Olympia, WA, St. Petersburg, FL, and Seattle, WA, where the residents of one shanty town named their camp Nickelsville, a jab at Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. The city of Santa Barbara, CA has converted a car parking lot into a space for homeless persons to sleep in their cars. While there are many such encampments growing rapidly across the country, one in particular captured international attention.
The media first examined the plight of the newly-homeless on the February 25, 2009 Oprah Winfrey special “New Faces of the Homeless,” which featured the now-infamous encampment along the banks of the American River in Sacramento, California. The tent city in California’s state capital is eerily positioned close to land that nearly a century ago saw a Depression-era “Hooverville” inhabited by Tennesseans fleeing starvation and desperately searching for work. At its peak, the contemporary shanty town housed nearly 200 persons in tents and improvised temporary shelters on land owned by the local Municipal Utility District. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (D) was interviewed a short time later on the March 9th broadcast of Larry King Live, during which he called for “tough love” and “zero tolerance” to “deal with people who’ve lost their homes.” Mayor Johnson followed up his “blame the victim” tirade with the announcement of a $1 million-plus joint effort with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to evict and relocate the entire population to temporary homeless shelters around the city and to an indoor modular structure at the city’s CalExpo Fairground, a shelter which is actually set to close its doors in June of this year.
While many of the tent city’s homeless residents had left the encampment by the mid-April eviction deadline, some, including homeless advocate Sister Libby Frenandez of Loaves and Fishes, stayed behind in an act of civil disobedience; protesting the shell game strategy of Mayor Johnson and the governor. Greg Bunker, a local advocate for the homeless, pointed out, “They're out of sight and in smaller groups now, which seems to be the unstated policy of our local government.” He further explained that many of the tent city’s former residents had dispersed into nearby woods or other camp sites along the river, rather than going to shelters. Cynthia Hubert of the Sacramento Bee reports: “Threatened with citations for camping on that land, many of the tent city's residents this week moved onto private property a short walk east. But that encampment, too, was being dismantled Thursday with the help of county and city law enforcement officers.” Mayor Johnson has now stated publicly that he believes a permanent, city sanctioned and controlled tent city might be “one of many strategic approaches that we can do, here as a city.”
The Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance found that the 2008 homeless population had reached nearly 2,700. That’s 2,700 out of a total population of approximately 500,000, with nearly 1,200 of those without a home living in their cars or on the street! Fresno, CA has reported figures very similar to those in Sacramento. Inhabitants of another large tent city in Nashville, TN are scheduled to be evicted on June 1st, underscoring the common theme of the ruling-class parties and politicians in their approach to homelessness and “dealing with” the homeless: Blame the Victim. It is as if the heart-wrenching testimony of hundreds of homeless individuals and families, many of them skilled workers and professionals, interviewed and aired in the media in recent months means nothing to the big-wigs in D.C. and our state capitals, nothing at all when weighed against the profit motives of the corporate, capitalist interests the Democrats and Republicans are beholden to.
Neither Mayor Johnson’s million dollar plan to relocate the homeless to temporary shelters nor Obama’s multi-billion dollar mortgage restructuring plan will do any more than the “zero tolerance” policies toward squatting to address the fundamental causes of homelessness: job loss, low wages, lack of affordable-quality housing, and lack of access to health services and preventative medicine, all of which are only symptoms of a greater problem, which is the exploitative nature of the capitalist system.
Sacramento, CA has been hit especially hard by the crisis of the real estate market and countless homes and apartments, certainly many times more than are needed, are sitting empty and idle when they could easily be used to house the homeless. This would be a truly “compassionate” alternative for those already on the streets. But what about addressing the causes of homelessness? Again, the “solutions” of the Big Business politicians come up short.
It should come as no surprise that none of the politicians or public officials involved thus far have suggested policies that might, at the very least, help keep people in their homes. For example, an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, rent/rate hikes, and utility shut-offs. None of the talking heads and media mouthpieces for the ruling class parties are calling for full employment at a living wage, socialized healthcare, free, quality cradle-to-grave education in fully-funded public schools and universities, more union hiring and training halls, dramatically expanded public transportation or nationalization of the nation’s top industries and employers, including the banks, under democratic workers' control as part of an economy rationally planned to meet human needs, not profit motives. All that the ruling class parties and their standard bearers seem to be able to conjure up are more of the same profit-motivated strategies that have always failed working people and cannot address the causes of the problems we face because they are a part of the problem.
Homelessness has been a part of the capitalist system from the very beginning, but has been on the rise in the United States especially since the 1980s, thanks in no small part to the gutting of social funding enacted under former president Ronald Reagan and continued by each subsequent administration – Democrats and Republicans alike. The economic crisis we see today has made things even worse, and advocacy groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the National Coalition for the Homeless warn that “an additional 1.5 million people could be left homeless this year, a third of them children,” because of home foreclosures and the crisis. And this warning comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s admission that job losses will continue, even if the financial markets were to “turn around” later this year, and that many of the jobs lost are simply never coming back. How many auto workers and their families, facing up to nine-weeks of potential production shutdowns this summer and the threat of forced “renegotiation” of contracts, will find themselves at risk of homelessness, possibly for the first time in their lives? How many teachers and school staff, facing massive budget cuts and the ongoing assault on public education, might find themselves one step away from living out of a car or a tent?
As Obamavilles appear in communities from coast to coast, full of skilled workers desperately struggling for survival, it becomes apparent that the capitalist political parties: the Democrats, Republicans, and the far right-wing elements that dominated the recent “tea-party” events, offer no solution out of the crisis for the working class. They offer us no way forward because they simply can’t offer any way forward; their interests are directly opposed to those of the workers, as many are learning under present conditions. Already, working people are beginning to look for an alternative, not only to the ruling class parties and their profit driven politics, but to the capitalist system of exploitation in general.
The Workers International League believes that only a mass Party of Labor can offer any real solutions, defend and fight for workers’ interests. We need our own party to win power and create a truly democratic society for, of, and by the vast majority: the working class. For an economy rationally and democratically planned to meet human needs, to eliminate unemployment, poverty, and homelessness! If you too believe that a better world is not only possible, but necessary to put an end to the capitalist cycle of suffering and exploitation, contact the WIL today and join the fight for a better world!