Measure S, Panhandlers, and the Struggle for Autonomy
Recently my discussions of welfare have shaded into opposition to Berkeley’s Measure S, and this diary explores the connection between the two issues. Much of the commentary on Measure S stereotypes people who sit on the sidewalk as “obnoxious panhandlers”, and the ethical and humanitarian questions about why they are sitting on the sidewalk have faded into the background.
I believe the single biggest source of misunderstanding about all those needy people sitting on the sidewalk and what to do to help them comes from the assumption that they are homeless (and somehow that automatically makes them mentally ill substance abusers as well).
There is little consideration of the “permanent panhandlers” as people who are not yet homeless – unless it’s in the context of representing them as lazy, undeserving scammers. There are also sporadic attempts to represent them as “dangerous” despite their vested interest in retaining their particular spot and “working” it like a job. These people are permanent sidewalk fixtures are there precisely because the “comprehensive services” that the proponents of Measure S claim to exist do not apply to them. There is nothing to help them retain the place they live, no matter how long they have lived there or how they have previously contributed to the workforce or the community.
Measure S stabs at the heart of a profound social problem and one of the major challenges for the progress of the human spirit: the struggle for autonomy.
What most people don’t understand about Welfare is there is no “cash” component or non-food “necessities” component for single people without children if they are trying to retain the stable place where they already live. All of “general assistance” ($330/month maximum) will go directly to maintaining your existing housing, and it usually goes directly to your landlord. You may actually have more cash if you are homeless, or if you are living in “transitional housing” that allows you to keep/save some of the “general assistance” money. Far from being ineligible for “needy” status because they aren’t homeless, their only option is to turn to everyone they know – and even strangers they don’t know – for help.
The “Ambassadors” proposed by Measure S would not be able to hook these people up with any “comprehensive services”. However, pushing panhandlers out of high traffic commercial areas may indeed push them into homelessness: where they will suddenly be eligible for, and at the mercy of, the “help” the Ambassadors want to provide.
Well-meaning people have told me that I will soon have to “face reality” and give up the place that I live. In their minds this is practicality, not cruelty: I will either “move in with family” or resort to a “homeless shelter” until I get into “transitional housing”. Along as I can get food and shelter, then relinquishing the place I have lived for almost 15 years is a mere inconvenience. Giving up my home will be “hard” but it won’t be the end of the world.
What these well-meaning, practical people don’t understand is that giving up your home is giving up your autonomy and your dignity as a human being. Your home incorporates family keepsakes, cherished memories in the form of letters and Christmas cards and knickknack gifts, books, personal writings and works of art, and beloved pets that might be their primary source of emotional nourishment. To give these things up is to give up one’s identity, one’s roots, one’s basis for self-expression and self-determination.
Retaining your home is also about retaining your privacy and personal choices. The system of shelters and “transitional housing” is a system of surveillance, supervision, and supercilious judgment. What you choose to wear, what you choose to read, what you choose to eat, what you choose to do with your time is what makes you into you. In the great cosmic scheme of things, those choices constitute your development and potential as a human being. Once you are “in the system”, you will be shaped for other people’s purposes: you will no longer be able to fulfill your own destiny.
Society operates under the tacit assumption that people should “work” to retain their independence. If you do not get paying work, and you are unable to shell out for the basic necessities of life, then you deserve to be deprived of your autonomy.
Depriving a person of autonomy is what a prison sentence does: if you commit a crime, your
punishment “rehabilitation” involves constant surveillance, loss of privacy, and eradication of choice. Panhandlers who are trying to retain existing homes are trying to resist this prison-like condition.
Some Sidewalk Purists may argue that panhandlers deserve loss of autonomy just by virtue of “letting themselves get into” a situation where panhandling is the last resort. This is an arbitrary assumption, and a highly unfair one in a society that is complacent about a 6% “natural unemployment rate”. Society-as-given is rife with knee-jerk discrimination and bad luck: this is the consequence of some of our ostensible “virtues” such as flexible, loose organization and competitive “meritocracy”. We permit and even cultivate the cracks people fall into.
One Andreas fault-sized crack is the current health care
chaos system which is rationed in favor of people who have money and subjects the uninsured to so many gaps and changes in care, and so many months of waiting time (appointment calendar roulettes, we-will-call you referrals, waitlists, etc.), that people can go on for years with untreated conditions and become disabled out of sheer neglect. When a disabled person can no longer take care of themselves, do they “deserve” to lose their autonomy. This is part of what the Disability Rights Movement is about.
Yet, at least once you are classified as disabled, there will be some concern for your rights and dignity as a human being, as well as access to the “comprehensive” social services that the Sidewalk Purists are always referring to. To be classified as “disabled” for these purposes, you need to be determined to be at least “50% disabled”, as determined by a 15 minute chat with doctor contracted by Social Services if you have been previously uninsured and lack enough documentation. No one realizes just how absurd the situation is until they are caught in it.
Soooo…what if you are 25% disabled? What if you are just disabled enough to have difficulty getting around and be beset by the opinions of potential employers and other people who don’t know you…but not disabled enough to get subsidized housing and other services. This fine line also applies to mental illness: is a person who is “maladjusted” or just out of tune with the common run of society mentally ill? They may not click with employers even if they are not technically mentally ill. Do they deserve to lose their autonomy because they are different, and society has declined to offer them channels to work out their particular vision and purpose in life?
Take a close look at a panhandling “regular” the next time you go on a pub crawl: would you hire that person? If you wouldn’t hire them, who will? Do they deserve to lose their autonomy because you think they don’t fit in?
The threat of loss of autonomy is especially cruel in a highly literate, highly educated society where people are bred to and trained to think critically and independently, and form their own opinions. Each individual is a production site for universal reason. Independence is a central value in American culture, even if you haven’t been over-exposed to the Enlightenment Project. In the age of the Internet, many people develop stronger identities through discussion and writing than their physical presence in the world can sustain. Is there a greater tragedy than giving people a means to develop a strong individual, interior identity, but then ripping away their autonomy in the physical world?
It’s hard to imagine myself panhandling. Every ingrained value and habit makes me defer to others and avoid being a pest. Yet I might resort to panhandling if it was the only thing I could do to save my books (which are all heavily annotated, containing decades of thoughts and seeds for writing). Losing those books would destroy me as a person. The only alternative besides trying to save them would be suicide. I know there’s a line of thinking that people of character avoid begging under any circumstances: death before dishonor. As god awful as my life has been, I’m not the suicidal type. I think I would try to do something about my situation first. That is what panhandlers are: people who are trying to do something about their situation, when society is not offering them any more dignified alternatives.
Has anyone noticed that the GOP never concedes that their “you’re on your own” mentality is wrong? If closely reasoned arguments and majority votes oppose their views, that means their views were being suppressed, overridden by a “machine”, defeated by “class war”. Facts and data are simply weapons of the enemy. This is because the GOP views inequality as a natural, bio-determined necessity. They scramble after privilege because if they don’t get it, someone else will. Social justice is nothing more than a shift of power to other people. Proposals to “raise all boats” are pretty lies that the power mongers on “the other side” tell. Malthusian consequences aren’t discussed over tea because they are shocking and crass, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong.
The people “in the know” will position themselves to be first served in times of scarcity and to make sure someone
else does the menial labor our way of life requires. Slavery is a bad word now, so people have to be forced to do uncongenial labor in other ways. In this era where much labor could be superseded by machines, the pressure to force everyone to work mainly comes from everyone’s anxiety that someone else will get out of doing the work. This inertia amounts to the perpetuation of hazing, and despair over the possibility of fairness. Slavery is a natural necessity, and businesses that find a way to harness slavery or at least foist the costs of labor on to society (like Wal-mart encouraging their underpaid workers to apply for food stamps and Medicaid) are just being clever. If you “get caught”, you’re just inept at playing the game. Sociopathy is just the obvious response to a hypocritical world that does not dare to acknowledge how things really work.
Even Progressives are inclined toward this “natural necessity” view of the human condition, or else there would be a lot more blogging about blind hiring, re-allocation of labor and obligation, and more radical concepts like guaranteed work or “Social Security for all”. No one expects fundamental changes in our social order to take place any time soon. Thus, people fall through the cracks, yet annoyingly refuse to disappear all together. People make their needs known and do what they have to do to survive – and maintain their autonomy.
In the case of Berkeley and Measure S, I’ve personally seen more disruptive behavior inside businesses where homeless and/or mentally ill/substance abusing people try to beg from a captive audience, take over bathrooms, disrupt as a way of making a statement, or just try to get warm and dry for a few minutes. Business owners don’t hesitate to call the police in such situations, and they have the right to defend their private property. However, the sidewalks are public property. Clearing sidewalks for the benefit of particular private businesses goes against everything the Occupy movement stood for. In Berkeley, this effort to redefine the community as the prosperity of personal business endeavors has been slyly reinforced by the removal of benches and the placement of spikes around “sittable” raised greenery planter in places where the yuppies won’t be looking to sit.
Measure S included provisions for “ambassadors” to actively connect people to “comprehensive services” before they were actively kicked off the sidewalk. But if hooking people up to “comprehensive services” would actually help them and give them an alternative to sitting on the sidewalk, why is this even a rider on Measure S? Why not simply send these “ambassadors” out right now and connect people to services with no strings attached? Dare I suggest this is because the representatives of business interests realize the “ambassadors” proposal is all show, and that their “comprehensive services” do not cover the situation of the “regular” panhandlers who are out on the sidewalk and trying to get by on compliments, guitar music, and free copies of Street Spirit rather than peeing in public or doing other disruptive things that might cause them to lose their spot.
There is no question that many people are homeless, suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems, and both they and the Sidewalk Purists would benefit from helping them with their specific problems. There are also people who sit on the sidewalks as a lifestyle/political statement, as a protestor “occupying” public space, as take-out food eaters, or as just the last resort to get off their aching feet. The point is that the people on the sidewalk who are not serving immediate business interests cannot be easily shoe-horned into the preferred Measure S narrative of “homeless or youth adventure fake-homeless”. The biggest thorn in the side of their argument are the panhandlers who are trying to hold on to their own places and preserve their autonomy.
It’s an “easy out” to say anyone who panhandles before they’re truly homeless must not be in dire need, and they are therefore running a scam on people of good conscience. However, I hope my past writings and this diary show that the situation is much more complicated than that, and the many months it takes to get things done as well as the outright lack of help for single people without children forces people to seek help wherever they can, including approaching random strangers on the sidewalk. Moreover, because services are so compartmentalized and uncoordinated, there is widespread paranoia about who gets what – which exacerbates racism and other social divisions.
While the ballots are still being counted, it looks like Measure S will be narrowly defeated. However, the fact Measure S has come so close to being passed shows how the spin of business interests nearly swamped the other voice in Berkeley – especially the most marginalized ones, and that of the people at extreme risk of losing their autonomy and their very dignity as human beings. If my diaries can do anything to shed light on the actual situation, then maybe I’ve done my bit to move humanity in a genuinely progressive direction.