Imagine being obliged to sleep shivering on the street or under canvas in the dead of winter. For most of us curled-up and cosy under our duvets with the TV remote at the ready such a dreadful scenario is so alien that it rarely crosses our minds.
Perhaps our sympathies occasionally extend to the millions of refugee families confined within mud-soaked camps without the ability to keep warm and dry. But how many of us residents of the planet’s wealthiest democracies scurry past rough sleepers as though they were a contagion, often brushing off their plight as their own fault to assuage their conscience? The homeless tend to become a minor cause celebre around Christmas, forgotten again once the holly comes down.
Sad to say compassion for ‘losers’ often written off as substance abusers is in short supply within the public domain, which is no doubt responsible for the uncaring attitudes displayed by politicians in the US and the UK, most of whom with few notable exceptions pay little more than lip service to defeating the growing problem usually in the run-up to elections.
For instance, US President Donald Trump clearly sees these unfortunates as a nuisance. Major cities in one of the wealthiest US states, California, are experiencing a crisis in homelessness. There are an estimated 60,000 homeless in Los Angeles. At least 8,000 sleep in makeshift shelters that line entire city blocks.
Comments from Trump are not reassuring. He complained that police are “getting sick” of dealing with the homeless who he blamed for causing environment damage to San Francisco. “We have people living in our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes,” he said while alluding to a potential crackdown on people who have the affront to litter the landscape.
Over the past years LA’s homelessness has risen by 12 per cent. But instead of a helping hand to get back on their feet these poor individuals are abandoned to attacks by vigilantes and verbal abuse.
While it is the case that a proportion of street sleepers do suffer from drug or alcohol dependencies, others on a minimum wage who have survived from pay cheque to pay cheque unable to pay rent or a mortgage payment when confronted with an unexpected crisis. Yet others were suddenly laid-off from their poorly paid jobs and without savings could not pay their bills.
Several states criminalise kind hearts who feed the homeless, while the Las Vegas City Council is mulling an ordinance that would make it illegal for anyone to “rest, sleep or lodge” downtown at pain of being fined $1,000 (Dh3,370) or spending up to six months behind bars.
Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has a $2.5 trillion plan to end homelessness, which he characterises as a symptom of greed by the rich. Unfortunately, in a nation where for many socialism is a dirty word, his chances may be remote even though there are Americans who truly do care. Last week, over a thousand people slept in New York’s Time Square in freezing temperatures in solidarity with the city’s 64,000 homeless.
The situation is just as bad if not worse in the world’s 5th largest economy, the UK, where rough sleeping has increased by more than 165 per cent since 2010. This year statistics published by the Greater London Authority showed that 8,855 were living on London’s streets, a record high. London’s outspoken Mayor Sadiq Khan blamed the Tory government for cutting back on welfare payments and its lack of investment in social housing.
As many as 22,000 young people between the ages of 16 to 25 will be on the street this Christmas, according to the youth homeless charity, Centrepoint. Last year alone 726 rough sleepers were found dead mostly from treatable illnesses as well as hypothermia and overdoses.
The lone British politician who is sincerely passionate about this topic is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who has pledged to end rough sleeping during his first year in office should his party win the election on December 12 and to emphasise the point, he said he would reject staying in Chequers, the luxurious prime ministerial country retreat. “It can’t be right. We are a country with 150 billionaires, and we’ve still got people sleeping on the streets,” he said.
Sorry to say that sincere advocates of the poorest members of society such as Sanders and Corbyn are rarely given the opportunity to carry through on their promises in our ‘me-me’ concentric world increasingly dominated by the brash and silvery tongued more concerned with markets than the welfare of citizens whose interests they are supposed to represent. Inequality is a major factor driving social uprisings all over, including France.
A banana duct-taped to a wall of a Miami Beach gallery that sold to a French art collector for $120,000 before it was grabbed and eaten by a performance artist says it all.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.