In 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States. For many the Reagan Administration is remembered for Reaganomics and ending the Cold War. Yet the poor and homeless of the time remember it rather for a dramatic reduction in housing and social services, Boss Tweed politics, and constant reminders that a mythical “welfare queen” in Chicago and exaggerated “welfare cheats” across America made their poverty their fault. “Mr. Reagan and Congress’s housing cutbacks are directly responsible for the homeless problem,” Mitch Snyder once said of the Administration.
On Thanksgiving Day 1981, tents appeared in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. A sign amidst the spread of tents read “Reaganville: Reagonomics at Work.” The tent city, an intentional throwback to the Hooverville encampments of the Great Depression, held 20-25 homeless persons and activists each night for the next four months. For many observers, a fine line had been drawn between what is real and what is theater. Such was precisely Snyder’s desire.
In addition to being an activist, Snyder was a self-proclaimed actor. A master of social pageantry and what now would be dubbed “street theater,” Mitch was famed for his insatiable motivation to cause a public scene. Among his exploits, he orchestrated a blood spattering of the Capitol steps, sloshed through the world’s biggest pie yelling “It’s all mine,” sat outside the White House in an old Irish tradition of waiting outside the home of someone who had wronged you without appropriate remorse, often jumped the White House fence, and, most infamously, fasted, nearly unto death three times. These actions gained significant attention to Mitch, the cause of homelessness, and helped to energize and unify many homeless persons and advocates.Source — “I Don’t Mind Stealing Bread.”
Talking with John (he prefers a pseudonym), I know tagging this 48-year-old as a “victim of circumstances” won’t stick. He prefers to be called a vagabond. We talk about intelligent design, quantum physics, zoning laws, solutions to housing precarity.
He’s been going state to state for seven years. His own life philosophy is complicated, but in one sense is can be whittled down to – “Here today and gone tomorrow.”
“I am not a loner, don’t get me wrong,” he tells me while we share coffee. “I’ll associate with anyone who’s kind regardless of their station in life.”
Like many on the road, John doesn’t want many specifics revealed. He grew up in Los Angeles. He said he was probably a foster child. No siblings. He has no connection to his parents. The effects of a bullet to the lung and one to the hip at age 22 (both removed) are taking a toll on his ability to work long and grueling jobs.
He’s thrown in as a line chef, in carpentry, cabinet-making, demolishing structures and even was paid a penny a word for research through an on-line university.
He thinks labeling anyone with “mental illness” is both incorrect (“we can have mental issues and problems, but it is not a disease”) and a quick way to control people and taking away their rights.
John is skeptical of government services for homeless, saying, “The secular institutions aren’t capable of helping the homeless. When people help me, it’s members of the community. Religious institutions should be helping out much more.”
He’s not atypical in that he had his ID stolen in 2016, and has had major difficulty securing a copy of his birth certificate (from California) to get the process going for an ID. His California driver’s license, he said, was taken by police.
Working under the table isn’t always easy. He isn’t asking for any handouts, but when I pressed him about his immediate needs, he said:
- somewhere to get out of the rain
- a place with a source of heat
- a place to cook food
- a place to get out of the cold.
“It seems like the powers that be want us to freeze to death. Sometimes it’s just a place to get out of the cold that can make the difference,” John said.
Part of my impetus doing this sidebar is to get the word out, but in so many cases, I feel as if I am a babe in the woods. There are not real forums where strong, focused arguments about the failures of capitalism can be voiced. You see, the fewer opportunities for social-people-environmental-cultural justice to be voiced and delineated, the quicker this retail/consumer society will tank.
From the bottom up, of course, since we have a system of corporate welfare that sucks the very blood from people. Imagine, no outrage about food stamps — a program if run right STIMULATES local economies, local food purveyors, local community building.
Instead, a million more people off the measly program, while those pigs of capital get cash hand over fist billions for military-surveillance-prison-banking complex.
Children already in bad schools — bad because they teach incompetence, small mindedness, compliance, stupidity, chaos, genuflection to lies about history and about the Empire — need real food, real veggies, real fruit, real nutrition. Instead, more children left behind.
And, then, who knows how many end up like these men in a decade, or two decades.
Imagine systems of oppression in schools, in communities, with police forces, with the broken and dictatorial social services, working to put more and more people through the ringer.
Yep, people come to Lincoln County (like hundreds of other counties) to find a place in the sun. To find work. To get away from the urban core of a Portland.
They find seasonal work, tourist industry low paying service jobs, no transportation system, no community gardens, no community centers, nothing, really, and alas, the worst part, they have no housing.
Think how hard communities of every size and shape give away trillions in tax abatements, free land, loopholes, entitlement program, federal dollars, the whole works. Yet, do we have cooperative housing so these businesses can keep people here with the low wages they shell out?
Insanity is believing the tip of the iceberg is the iceberg, so seeing these down and out men (and some women) on the streets and then calling it good when crappy hot chocolate is donated on a windy cold day, when a pile of toothbrushes is given out, when a Oregon Ducks used sweatshirt if thrown at them!
PhD’s on food-stamps! Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants living in cars, tripling up, while football coaches and a million other superfluous employees at universities get big pay, big tenure rewards, big retirement benefits.
I have been around enough to have talked with plenty of faculty (I was a freeway flyer with a spouse, so we threw in together, with some help from my mother and her parents buying our only child “things” that would have cost us an arm and a leg) who are living in their vans. I have been around enough to have worked as a social worker with clients living in cars, in tents, in abandoned garages and shacks. These homeless people ARE workers, man — cutting Dole’s fruit, loading a million consumer goods onto pallets, answering phones at call centers. Tons and tons of people working the Amazon Fascist Smile Warehouse gig living in a beat-up 20 foot RV.
Tickets on their windows for parking in “illegal zones.” Tickets for expired plates. Tickets for garbage neatly boxed outside the RV. Tow truck operators making bucks, judges getting paid, cops getting retirement benefits.
Being poor, as John attests, costs a lot of money. “If I have no place to cook and heat up food, what does that leave me? Chips and bad food. I can’t go into a restaurant like this an pay $12 for an enchilada plate.”
Larry is so down and out he has cancerous growths on his face, on his back. His clothes are so bad that he gets shooed away from businesses just being outside. He is in need of massive intervention, and on the surface that intervention might look like mandatory “commitment” to a program or suite of programs. But he is in pain, dying on the streets, a constant reminder of the failure of so many systems in this wacko survival of the fittest/dog-eat-dog/Christ Let’s The Poor Inherit The Earth mumbo-jumbo.
Mumbo-jumbo that drive policy. I have met a hundred social workers (females) who have crucifixes around their necks, who believe in their own personal angels. I have met dozens of male social workers who believe in tough love, in turning off someone’s food stamps to get them to come into the office for their monthly face-to-face.
These are the evil people, the Little Eichmann’s, the banality of evil that is a country like USA. Or any country that values the rich and the material over the majority of people in their midst, over the land, over the ecosystems.
John believes the churches will step it up. He thinks the government is too strong, and that churches — the Xmas kind — should have power in this country. he’s a smart guy, deep thinker, been around but over the years it’s been those ministries that have given him a spare blanket, a dime, food.
That’s the odd thing about smart homeless people — they have undying faith in their personal protector, their big daddy in the sky. Many see their lives in this constant chaos and estrangement from “norms” as part of some big plan.
Some, that is, believe that.
But, just last night — a woman, forty, with two girls, on her own, getting disability security checks for the autistic child. She’s in subsidized housing. She has no money for car insurance. Getting a job means something right across the street from her subsidizing housing. An 11 year old at home with a daughter who just turned 18 receiving the $1300 a month for housing and disability compensation.
If this woman — the daughter — goes over $15 or more a month, she loses payments. Already the food stamp allotment has been cut by $85 a month. Imagine, a family of three, and that is a big cut big time.
The average person spends $75 a month on coffee at Starbucks. But the average person in the other category — really precarious, on the edge, without many employment options — they end up in a life and death situation. Less nutrition.
Now, some redneck type might ask where’st he father? Oh, where is that father who ended up in the US Army, got injured twice, with 300 pounds of antifreeze coming down on his head? Yep, ya think that man is cognitively okay? Divorced and left with the two children at a young age, this woman is not getting back child support.
The cogs of the machinery not only to not turn, they are frozen in place.
Recrimination abounds in the world I travel through — it’s her faulty for having kids; it’s her fault for having a bad spouse; it’s her fault for not going to college’ it’s her faulty she was born into a bad family with no father figure; it’s her fault she carries extra pounds on her frame; it’s her fault the kids have no extras, no activities to do outside of school, walks on the beach and TV; it’s her fault for being here on the coast.
A lot of faults, a lot of recriminations, a lot of what most people of “good upbringing” say among themselves or to themselves while passing this woman by as she walks with her daughters and the passerby is in her SUV.
As a writer-journalist-advocacy thinker-biased human being, I can say not enough gets said in meetings, not enough passion is passed around by the stakeholders and powerful. Not enough calling the kettle black, man.
This society where I enter — so many different demographics, activities, realms, professions, people types — is still deluded into believing the crap of American Exceptionalism. They really believe there was great time in USA, when it was a Great White City on the Hill.
IN the end, trauma-trauma-trauma. Many end up precarious because of the trauma. Misanthropes like a Trump or Bloomberg or Zuckerberg, well, there might have been trauma-trauma-trauma in their lives (all three have exacted millions of traumas to others) but these archetypes are able to “overcome” them and become the cruel and ruthless and demeaning hucksters they have become. That the average Joe and Jane like or respect any of these folk — cult of celebrity is a death sentence of intelligence — is amazing still to me.
But the daily survival of John — he has so many skills a Trump of Bloomberg do not have — is both elegant and real. He is getting close to fifty, and he may look like a regular guy on some walkabout, he still knows things could be much better for him.
He laments how women who are homeless have it worse than the men. “Look, I have seen women come into an area after an assault. The cops don’t care. There are missing women all the time. There’s a new poster out in Newport of a young woman missing. How many of them are murdered, left in the woods. The police don’t pursue these rape cases, these missing persons cases. It’s a tragedy, a crime.”
One thought on “Street Wise and Worldly”
I will include an email here from a kind reader, a fighter, and someone I never met but in many ways have met a thousand years ago; Name has been abbreviated for anonymity. Babe in the woods I might be, but every so often, some sort of lifeline from a reader, a believer, a friend of the revolution! Thanks, CS. Paul
Comment: I read you, Paul.
Have for years.
I love your work…
You don’t fight the bastards to win. You fight them BECAUSE they’re bastards.
That’s what I love about you.
You continue to slog forward, regardless of the relentless heartbreak, the rage, the loneliness, the never-ending injustice, the pain…
You continue to share the incredible wealth of your knowledge and experience through your one-of-a-kind writing style.
You continue to—I swear to God—make a BIG difference by working with us: the downtrodden, run-over, impoverished, marginalized, forgotten, mischaracterized, misunderstood, exploited, soul-crushed, lives-destroyed people.
Even people far away from Oregon. Even me.
At 63, I say you’re in your prime.
Don’t give up.
There are more of us out here who admire you and love you than you will ever know.
Most of us are voiceless.
But when we’re able to break the surface for a breath, we don’t waste it on the already-well-aware-and-could-give-a-shit assholes in power.
I saved my breath for you, Paul.
You are our voice, and you are my hero.
Thank you, Paul Haeder.
Thank you for who and what you are: a warrior teacher.
With deepest respect and admiration,
(P.S. – And Fuck Amazon. I’m glad YOU are using THEM to get WOE out. You’re not the compromiser or hypocrite. Bezos and his like ARE.)