By Adam Marletta
Do not be swayed by the class-baiting corporate news pundits, or the vitriolic poor-bashing letters to the editor in your local newspaper. The recent disclosure that 13 individuals who recently stayed in Portland homeless shelters had considerable holdings in their bank accounts is not an indictment on Mayor Michael Brennan’s leadership. Nor, for that matter, does it confirm conservatives’ fatuous belief that “Big Government” welfare programs create a “culture of dependency.”
What it does show, however, is that the city of Portland lacks both the structural resources and, apparently, the moral imperative to truly provide for its neediest, most desperate citizens.
The poor, the homeless, the disabled and mentally ill: These are the people we as a city, a nation, and a society, refuse to acknowledge. We have discarded them onto the streets like so much garbage. We look away as they stand in the snow and frigid cold, holding hastily scrawled signs pleading for spare change. We drive on and callously blame them for their own misfortune.
These dispossessed people are the “wretched of the Earth,” in Frantz Fanon‘s famous words. Since they have no disposable income and, therefore, cannot participate in consumer society, they are useless to the corporate state. In fact, the only value these individuals have to the capitalist system is locked away in a for-profit prison–one of the fastest-growing private industries in the nation.
As the late Nelson Mandela observed, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”
Conservative Mainers who rail against these so-called “moochers,” are so limited in their black-and-white thinking they cannot understand why a person with money in the bank would “choose” to stay at a homeless shelter. They are utterly oblivious to the notion that simply having money in one’s possession does not mean the person is cognitively capable of accessing it or managing it properly. Indeed, many may not even be aware they have such funds in the first place.
Furthermore, not everyone has family or friends they can rely on to help them manage their finances. In fact, drug and alcohol counseling programs like the quasi-religious Al-Anon, actively encourage family members of drug abusers to cut all ties with the addict as part of the treatment program–even if this means literally throwing one’s daughter or son out on the streets.
Both conservatives and liberals have been waging class-warfare against the poor for the last 30 years, now. And in the oft-repeated words of billionaire one-percenter, Warren Buffett, “My class is winning.”
“The state has failed in its duty to address mental illness,” said Jaime McLeod, Communications Manager for Preble Street Resource Center. “When they closed the mental health institutions years ago, a decree came down that the state must provide support for people with mental illnesses. But they dropped the ball. They left the city of Portland, with its limited resources, to carry the burden for the entire state.”
According to McLeod, the 13 people with significant savings are part of a group of 30 Portland-based homeless residents identified as having “very serious, untreated mental illnesses,” including psychosis and schizophrenia. They have been staying at homeless shelters like Preble Street and Oxford Street Shelter “for decades.” Some of them, she explained, have tried traditional housing arrangements, only to be removed.
“Some of them do not even realize they are ill,” said McLeod. “These are the people the system has been failing for years.”
In the wake of the Great Recession, Portland, like other cities nationwide, has seen a pronounced increase in homeless residents. Shelters like Oxford Street are routinely filled beyond capacity. The shelter has 142 sleeping mats available, but has lately housed 250-300 people, per night.
“We recently had to open the soup kitchen for people to spend the night,” McLeod said. “The rest sit in office chairs all night. We have nowhere else to put them.”
McLeod takes particular issue with the constant framing of homelessness as a “lifestyle choice.”
“Nobody is choosing to live this way,” she said. “Nobody wants to sleep on a mat on the floor next to a washing machine that drones on all night. And let’s get real–Maine, in the winter, is the last place you would want to be if you were homeless.”
This abysmal state of affairs is a byproduct of the disease that is capitalism–a system that turns everything, including human lives, into a commodity. It is a rapacious system that rewards corporations, do-nothing CEOs, and criminal Wall Street investors, but leaves the poor to literally starve in the streets or rot in prison.
“Money has become the grand test of virtue,” Orwell writes.
By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.