Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
In the midst of a heated presidential campaign, society’s most vulnerable people have become the latest punching bag.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has announced plans to sweep homeless people from city streets before the Super Bowl arrives in February, "because it is dangerous for them" otherwise.
“They are going to have to leave,” Lee recently told the city's CBS affiliate. “We’ll give you an alternative. We are always going to be supportive. But you are going to have to leave the streets.”
In several major U.S. cities, in fact, there seems to be a wave of renewed antipathy toward homeless people. In Los Angeles, the city is considering harsh crackdowns on those who sleep outside, as I reported here at CityLab in July. And in New York, homeless people have become a punching bag for those eager to accuse Mayor Bill de Blasio of sending the city back to its dystopian-1980s-squeegeeman-dark age (tellingly, this is all occurring as skyrocketing housing prices are swamping working and middle-class residents).
The pervasiveness of homeless people is "evidence" that the columnist John Podhoretz's Upper West Side "neighborhood is simply more menacing than it was a year or two ago, and that civil society is decaying," he recently declared in The New York Post. "And if I were Bill de Blasio looking ahead to 2017, I’d take this very seriously. He won election in 2013 in part because the argument that he would return the city to the bad old days didn’t resonate with voters."
The Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York has actually called upon its members and their loved ones to photograph homeless people in public, in what union president President Ed Mullins has said was a response to the “failed policies, more homeless encampments on city streets, a 10 percent increase in homicides, and the diminishing of our hard-earned and well-deserved public perception of the safest large city in America.”
Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani has also reemerged, complaining on local television that he had to personally ask police in his neighborhood precinct to take care of a homeless man relieving himself outdoors. Giuliani, lamenting the decline in broken windows-era policing, said his administration's recipe for dealing with unwanted vagrants was simple: “You chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em and you chase ’em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase ’em out of the city.”
The city's meanest tabloid has cheered Giuliani's tough talk, and obsesses over New York’s purported decline. Recent panicky headlines often sport a homeless face: "Bums think de Blasio is the best mayor ever," "Third World diplomats say NYC is grosser than the Third World," "Going to the park? Don’t trip on a bum," and, of course, "Squeegee man is city’s latest blast from the past."
But as Ginia Bellafante writes in her Sunday New York Times column, "homelessness isn’t awful because it degrades the streetscape; it is awful because it degrades lives."
The Post casually refers to a homeless encampment in Harlem as a "gross spectacle," and to one homeless person as a "filthy, toothless vagrant." This hatred, directed at society's most vulnerable people, is an incitement. And violence indeed occurs. Between 1999 and 2013, the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 1,437 violent attacks on homeless people perpetrated by housed assailants. That figure, the Coalition notes, is surely an undercount since many attacks against homeless people no doubt go unreported.
Among the most recent victims is the Hispanic homeless man brutally assaulted by two South Boston brothers inspired, at least in one's case, by Donald Trump's anti-immigrant diatribes.
It’s difficult to say whether this animus toward homeless people is feeding off of the election cycle’s mean-spirited political moment or, more broadly, a general sense of economic unease. Either way, it's no doubt tempting to beat up on society's "losers," as Trump likes to call them, when we're down.