a tale of the new australian city: rough sleeping, real estate, and the right to the street

by David Boarder Giles and Anna Carlson

 

Though down on my luck, I kept up my pluck  |  Thinking justice might temper the laws.  |  But the farce has been played, and the Government aid  |  Ain’t extended to squatters, old son.

– Banjo Patterson, The Broken Down Squatter

 

It’s early February in Melbourne and police are guarding the footpath. Dozens of them. A yellow fence cordons off the empty bluestone pavement alongside the iconic, century-old facade of Flinders Street Station, which is scheduled for renovation. It’s afternoon. Bystanders are gathering in the hundreds now, spilling onto the asphalt.

But they’re not who the fence is for.

Maybe a dozen people have been sleeping rough here for weeks. Behind the cordon are scattered remnants of their residency. A shoe. A water bottle. A floral pillow. A cardboard sign: #WHEREDOWESLEEPTONIGHT. They are men, women, young, middle-aged, Australian-born, refugees, able-bodied, and struggling with disabilities. They’ve camped together for community and security. They picked this spot strategically: it’s close to running water and toilets; charity vans bring food and mobile showers to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a block away; drop-in centres and clinics are nearby; and maybe most importantly, they are in the public eye. It’s safer to be visible. But moreover, the public is a resource. For food, supplies, and cash, but just as importantly, for community, conversation, and recognition. Indeed, the very definition of “public” implies a commons. As the philosopher Henri Lefebvre suggested, the city is just such a common good—produced and consumed collectively. That’s why they’re here.

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Simon, a member of the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria stands in solidarity with campers evicted from alongside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, February 2017. (Photo: David Boarder Giles)

But like many of the 250 or so Melburnians sleeping rough in the CBD, they’ve been told to move on. They’ve been offered three days’ crisis accommodation (along with the odd bedbug bite). After that, their options are rooming houses (exploitatively expensive, often dangerous and decrepit), years on a waiting list for public housing, or the streets again. They’ve chosen to stay at Flinders Street for as long as possible. That’s why the police are here. It’s also why supporters from the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria are here in solidarity. In tomorrow’s papers, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle will call this a “running sore” of protest.

Worse for them, in the following week the City Council will vote in bylaws that make it illegal to sleep rough or leave possessions unattended. According to Activities Local Law 2017, if they unroll a swag, or put their bags down to use the toilet, they risk a $250 fine or greater. Victorian Police Chief Graham Ashton, who requested the bylaws, defends them with an accusation that these campers are not only “pretending” to be homeless, but are a “disgusting” sight and a deterrent to the crowds visiting Melbourne today for the Australian Open.

Aside from being spurious—as a conversation with the campers demonstrates—Ashton’s comments are telling. They outline the competing interests at work. Like any commons, the city street is subject to endless struggle among stakeholders. (Tennis-goers. Rough sleepers. Police. And so on.) Indeed, councils across the United States have long employed comparable bans on sleeping, sitting, begging, urinating, and sharing food, in what’s often characterised as “taking back the city” from homeless bodies. In following suit, the City of Melbourne is wrestling with age-old questions: Who has a right to public space? For what purposes?

But the terrain of struggle is changing. The Australian city is being remade by new global configurations of stakeholders, from real estate speculators to refugees. Melbourne’s rough sleeping ban formalises this renewed struggle. It must be seen as a sign of the times, one that will be heeded by cities around the country with parallel struggles and aspirations. It remains to be seen who will have a right to the the twenty-first century Australian city.

 

Beneath the Southern Cross  |  and the canopy of the rainforest along the riverbank  |  the kuril, which still survives here  |  dug out its nest, and left its tracks.

– Lilla Watson, detail from Kurilpa Country

 

It’s late October in Brisbane and the heat is radiating up from the concrete. A kilometre from the CBD, through the murky tangle of the Brisbane River and the gash of the motorway, sits Kurilpa Peninsula. Connecting the two sites is the Kurilpa Bridge: an architectural marvel, award-winning, a signpost in Brisbane’s rush toward the global. The bridge bears a cosmopolitan family resemblance to developments across the metropolis, part of Brisbane’s blueprint for a “new world city”. At its southern end, the bridge meets Kurilpa Point Park, an open patch of grass with a scattering of barbecues and picnic tables. This is Jagera country. It has a long memory. At its northern end, the Turrbal land of the CBD, the bridge meets the monolithic glass-and-concrete headquarters of coal seam gas giant Santos, before winding down toward the stern facade of the Queensland Magistrate’s Court. A meeting-point between settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, Kurilpa Bridge is an auspicious place from which to ask questions about the city Brisbane is becoming.

Underneath the bridge is cool, dark and disconcertingly empty: an expanse of grey concrete ends abruptly, disappearing into uneven dirt and dying grass. A few weeks earlier, this place was home to an encampment: people seeking shelter, visibility, proximity, safety-in-numbers. But, like so many before them, their presence here—precarious, uncertain, messy—proved incompatible with the city Brisbane is trying to become. Today, there is no visible archive of their occupation. Welcome to the new world city.

The Brisbane Times first covered their story under the headline: “South Brisbane vagrants set to be moved on.” The terminology is important: since at least 2006, Queensland Police have had expanded powers under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000 to “move on” people in public places if their presence causes anxiety to another person. The article quotes a Council spokesperson who claimed to have received “12 complaints since August…about the group’s anti-social behaviour.” The precise nature of the behaviour was never explained. Queensland laws also prohibit a range of specific activities in public places (begging, sleeping, drinking, etcetera), as well as broadly-defined “public nuisance” offences, which have been used to criminalise anything from swearing to protesting. Most of these carry substantial fines, ranging from $250 to $3000. Brisbane City Council also routinely confiscate property left in public spaces.

Meanwhile, across the bridge, Queensland grapples with the end of its mining boom. The terrain is familiar: as investment in the old extractive and manufacturing industries dwindles, capital needs to expand. It seeks out new geographies in which to speculate. Stand on Kurilpa Bridge and look in any direction and you’ll see a skyline crammed with cranes; across the inner city, suburbs are a mess of building sites and traffic jams. There are at least 10,000 new apartments being built in Brisbane, a further 30,000 slated to hit the market in the next three years. The median starting price will be around $380,000. Brisbane is under construction.

Lord Mayor Graham Quirk defended the evictions from Kurilpa Point Park, saying “I could not… allow a township to grow at that location… which of course is the very same location that (French student) Sophie Collombet was murdered.” Such reflexive association of homeless people with violence—despite solid evidence that they are more often its victims than its perpetrators—contributes to their ongoing criminalisation. And as gentrification re-shapes surrounding neighbourhoods, the few “common” spaces available to homeless residents are subject to heightened scrutiny, policing, and the threat of violence: a 2006 study by the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic found that at least 75% of the homeless people surveyed had been “moved-on” in the past six months, and close to the same percentage had experienced police harassment. Such spatial enclosures compound other forms of exclusion. Several of the evicted campers, for example, were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Many were grappling with significant mental and physical health issues.

Despite their eviction, the problem remains: there is not adequate accommodation for them. Many will be back here again. The next morning, the Brisbane Times ran the headline: “South Brisbane Homeless could be moved on to nowhere.”

 

Violence is required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old.

– David Harvey, The Right to the City

 

Perhaps most telling in the headline is the word “nowhere”. They can’t be moved on because there is no place for them. “Homelessness” is not a characteristic of individuals, but rather a corollary of the making and unmaking of place—and particularly place-making projects that produce urban spaces antagonistic to certain human lives and habitations. To make this point, scholar Craig Willse suggests we describe it as a structurally produced pattern of “housing deprivation”. On any given night in Australia 105,237 people experience this deprivation. This is not a consequence of individuals’ choices or limitations, but rather of the making and unmaking of housing. Close to a quarter of Australia’s “housing deprived” are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; to talk about “homelessness” here is to talk about colonisation, the unmaking of Indigenous place, about spatial inequality and structural violence.

Such violent place-making has always shaped struggles over the city. In the twenty-first century, however, place-making projects increasingly aspire to the generic placelessness of a “world city”—echoing the placelessness of transnational capital itself. This global imaginary, however, erases the concrete, local modes of development and dispossession upon which it relies: fickle, itinerant global capital must remake the city according to its own needs. Melbourne’s prized title of “most liveable city” is, for example, awarded by The Economist magazine according to criteria suited to investors and firms who need to open branches, make conference calls, buy suits, attend power-lunches, or take in the tennis.

On these investors’ wish-lists, property development—place-making—ranks higher and higher. It becomes an end in itself. In an increasingly volatile, financialised global market, real estate speculation has become a new kind of global currency. The inevitable result, as urban theorist Peter Marcuse points out, is that housing markets boom and bust without regard for the people displaced by them. Housing deprivation increases in direct proportion to increasing rents. In total, one out of seven people on the planet now sleeps rough or squats with no formal lease or title.

Return to Melbourne, for example, where Lord Mayor Doyle spruiks a new project: the redevelopment of the 130 year–old Queen Victoria Market, complete with 58-storey residential power. Pitted against both heritage-minded Melburnians and the state government, Doyle has argued that the tower provides 56 units of “affordable” housing. But as former Councillor Richard Foster pointed out in a recent forum, this amounts to lip-service: the affordable units make barely half of the city’s stated target for new developments. The net effect will inflate Melbourne’s already prohibitive rents. (No doubt, making the city more “liveable” according to The Economist.)

Meanwhile over 80,000 vacant residential units idle across the city, waiting lists for public housing grow, and rooming houses continue to fleece vulnerable Melburnians who have no other option but the street. All this while 1,760 new residents move here every week. No wonder the CBD saw a 70% growth in rough sleeping at the last count.

These tectonic shifts play out in struggles over public space. In the last two years, for example, Melbourne’s landscape has been twice transformed: first, by an unprecedented number of semi-permanent encampments; and second, over the last six months, as the city has moved them on. Where specific mattresses, tents, or shopping trolleys had become familiar landmarks for passersby on Elizabeth, Swanston, Bourke, or Flinders Streets, now there is no evidence of their ever having been there.

These evictions, and laws which authorise them, are an almost inevitable result of the inequities occasioned by a new world city’s grand designs. The city of the twenty-first century may meet these challenges with a closed fist, or with a creativity and largesse that is truly world-class. It remains to be seen, then, how the new Australian city will answer the age-old question of who has a right to the street?

(This essay appeared in Arena Magazine, March 2017.)

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we are all trolls now: inauguration day and the crisis of political speech

inauguration day, 20 january 2017, university of washington, seattle

To my right, hundreds of people herd together behind a barricade, sprawling across the western flank of Red Square. Men and women, mostly young, white, fashionable and collegiate. Aside from the placards and ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps, they’re indistinguishable at a glance from shoppers at any of the nation’s great upscale shopping malls. A more urbane set than one imagines lining up to hear one of the country’s most infamous misogynist, islamophobe, ethno-nationalists. Yet more chic, right-wing journalist and self-professed internet “supervillain” Milo Yiannopolous will later appear to this eager public with bleached hair, aviator sunglasses, and a gaudy mohair cardigan—giving new resonance to the phrase ‘hipster racism’. But then, white nationalism itself is back in vogue this year.

To my left (of course) a second crowd herds symmetrically across the barrier that bisects the red brick quadrangle. Men and women, white people and people of colour, mostly young, and perhaps a little scruffier on average than their counterparts on the right. Many dressed in black to be harder to single out and arrest. They’ll blockade the auditorium tonight; only half of the ticket-holders will get in. Many wear masks to guard against ‘doxing’ by roving right-wing agitators, who’ll film counter-protesters and identify them on the web for anonymous hordes of right-wing trolls. (The masks weren’t enough, but more on that below.) These counter-protesters number in the dozens, for now. But hundreds of reinforcements will soon break away from the J20 inaugural demonstrations downtown and make the hour-long march to campus to make their stand against Yiannopolous. The scene is both jubilant and surreal as hundreds of boots and banners swarm up the streets and stairs to breech the campus.

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Boots and banners swarm up the streets and stairs.

‘No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA’, they’ll chant. Across the barricades, one man’s sign retorts, ‘Reject the fascism of the Left’. Strange that both parties can agree that ‘fascism’ is a bad thing, but not on what it is or whom it describes.

On the right, chants are raised. ‘Build the wall. Build the wall.’

On the left, ‘He’s racist. He’s sexist. He doesn’t represent us.”

On the right, more chillingly, ‘Trump. Trump. Trump.’

On the left, ‘Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!’ ‘Whose lives matter? Trans lives matter!’ And so on.

On the right, ‘Blue lives matter! Blue lives Matter!’ A row of police shuffle uneasily between the two mobs and the auditorium but give no indication of whether they identify with the ‘blue lives’ in question.

 
the appearance of a conversation

Superficially, this has the appearance of a conversation. But one without any pretense of persuasion, understanding, or shared vocabulary. At best, the two crowds agree on a few signifiers—the word ‘fascism’, for example—but not what they signify. More often, they talk right past each other.

The theorist Jürgen Habermas believed that liberal democratic societies were distinguished from other political systems by autonomous public spheres composed of rational debate and intellectual exchange among fellow citizens. (Habermas was imagining the early modern coffee house.) And this idealised exchange of ideas is still the cornerstone for the theory of change behind many a civil, sanctioned protest. But there is no evidence of such rational debate here in Red Square. This is no marketplace of ideas. Few people are trying to reach across the aisle (or the barricade).

To the contrary, a visceral enthusiasm often maintains the gulf between them. One Trump-voter I’d stumbled across earlier, for example, ventured over to eavesdrop on a nearby argument. When I gave him some backstory—it was a typical liberal-conservative conflict—he grinned rudely and said, pointedly, ‘good’, before darting back into the crowd, perhaps emulating Yiannopoulos’enthusiasm for baiting ‘liberals’. By the same token, I found myself chiding a young socialist for calling a complete stranger from across the barricades an ‘asshole’ on the strength of a glancing impression. Sheepishly, mischievously, he replied that the antagonism itself was edifying.

Such edifying antagonism is nothing new. But in this ‘post-truth’ moment, after the most divisive US election in living memory, it holds new currency. It is a sign of the times, for example, that a provocateur like Yiannopoulos has risen to such sudden infamy. It is almost certainly by design that he scheduled an appearance here, at the largest university in one of the country’s most left-leaning cities, on Inauguration Day. We are all being trolled. And not only by Yiannopoulos, for that matter, but by Trump and a groundswell of others inspired by their tactics.

Indeed, trolling—both online and in person—seems to be playing an increasingly central role in political speech in the post-truth era. Functionally, the quintessential troll represents the antithesis of rational public debate. They make no overture towards understanding or persuasion, much like our jeering comrades across the barricades. How, then, do we understand their political terrain? Here, silhouetted in the emergency floodlights of Red Square, our ad-hoc agora looks more like a sporting arena than a political forum. The electric crowd bears more of a resemblance to an incipient soccer riot than a polite debate. People will be hurt tonight. What, precisely, are we accomplishing?

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Our ad hoc agora looks more like a sporting arena than a political forum.


an argument I can’t win

For my part, I’m having an argument I can’t win. My twenty-something white interlocutor isn’t interested in critical reasoning. He says as much himself. I’ve called out some dangerously broad generalisations he’s making about the Black Lives Matter movement (he calls it ‘violent’ and ‘hate speech’ on the basis of a few anecdotes). I draw the analogy for him: the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Trump, but he wouldn’t generalise that all Trump’s voters were bigots, would he? He agrees completely, except for one thing: The Left started it, he insists. They make too many generalisations about the Right. So he’s obliged to do it to them, too.

In other words, he’s not interested in empiricism. Instead, he’s adopted a politics of strategic, willful misrecognition. This seems important for a few reasons. First, it indicates that for him—in this context, at least—politics has nothing to do with understanding or persuasion beyond his own like-minded sphere. Second, he is willing to embrace mis-understandings, particularly insofar as they circulate and are made meaningful within that sphere. (For example, the claims above are lifted wholesale from Yiannopoulos’ schtick.) Third, to him this seems like a strategically defensive posture.

It might be useful to think about this in Nancy Fraser’s terms. In her model, there is more to Habermas’ public sphere than simply civil discourse. It is shaped by what she calls ‘subaltern counterpublics’—smaller, less heterogeneous spheres of relatively autonomous political discourse (like feminism or the ‘alt-right’) that compete for public recognition and legitimation under the state. That US politics is composed of competing counterpublics goes part of the way towards explaining why participants might stubbornly value their own shared misunderstandings over more accurate or critical engagements with others. It also begins to explain why a defensive posture might seem necessary in the first place, and why it might emphasise conflict over understanding.

This, in itself, isn’t new. What seems distinctive to the United States right now—or at least newly acute—are the implications of this post-truth moment in which journalism is dismissed as fake or as an ‘opposition party’, ‘alternative facts’ are circulated, and information is largely mediated by our digital echo chambers. In this landscape, counterpublics may become increasingly insular and therefore increasingly independent of larger publics for recognition. Yet they still compete for legitimation from the institutions of the state. (This is precisely the counterpower achieved by white ethno-nationalists in the last election. Despite constituting a minority with little support among the mainstream press or traditional conservatives, they have achieved significant influence over the Republican Party and the presidency.)

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In this terrain, success often amounts, simply, to claiming space for one’s own narrative.

the attention economy

Such counterpublics compete with each other for recognition on their existential bedrock, political and cultural discourse. In this terrain, success often amounts, simply, to claiming space for one’s own narrative. On Red Square tonight, for example, innovative counterprotesters have taken that thought very literally indeed, projecting the slogans ‘Hate harms everyone’ ‘Hate won’t divide us’, and ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ in enormous, luminous block letters across the blockaded auditorium. But beyond material space, memes, music, news articles, advertisements and all manner of other interventions can all claim space within what Jonathan Beller calls the ‘attention economy’.

And where they cannot claim space, they may instead deny space to competitors’ narratives—whether through misrecognition, derailing, drowning them out, blockading their events or even defaming them and constraining their physical mobility. In other words: by trolling. Yiannopoulos and his audience have succeeded at this with galling skill. Despite their masks and black hoodies, for example, tomorrow two of my fellow instructors will wake up to find their names, classes, and parents’ addresses published on the web, along with slurs, threats, and defamation. Not surprisingly, those singled out are a queer man and a woman of colour from a majority Muslim country.

Neither are such threats purely discursive. Fights will break out. And one counterdemonstrator will be shot in the stomach before the night is over by one of Yiannopoulos’s audience—while the victim aimed to deescalate an existing confrontation, according to several friends who knew him. The shooter will later turn himself in and be released, claiming to have fired in self-defence. It’s possible he believes this. After all, as we saw earlier, these misrecognitions are often fundamentally defensive. And surely enough, in the fashion of bullies everywhere, Yiannopoulos has repeatedly accused ‘the Left’ of disingenuous pacifism and preemptive violence. (This, despite de-escalation training by protesters, and the gun brought by Yiannopolous’ audience.)


convictions seem beside the point

In all these ways agitators claim space for their narrative at the expense of another. And so, here on Red Square, whether we make a plausible argument to anyone but ourselves has become a trifle. It remains important that we show up, chant, carry signs, and claim space in whatever ways possible. Not because, like Atticus Finch, we believe courage means doing the right thing regardless of the outcome. Nor, even, because we believe rational debate, empathy, and understanding are valuable in their own right. I do believe these things. But those convictions seem beside the point here.

Perhaps, in that sense, we are all trolls now. That is the crisis of political speech on our hands. How will it define our politics? Tonight, the square will clear. A gunshot wound will heal slowly in intensive care. Yiannopolous will be paid handsomely. Tomorrow a gun enthusiast will walk free. And we will march in the millions. We will occupy the airports next, in solidarity with detained refugees. And after that we will see. How we imagine the political now will matter for a long time to come.

(This essay appeared in the February 2017 edition of Arena Magazine.)

 

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sharing the city: homeless bans don’t work, but they do cost a great deal—financially, socially, and morally

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February 1, 2017: Rough sleepers alongside Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, standing their ground, calling for more public housing as they await eviction. (Photo: David Boarder Giles)

 

Laws prohibiting the homeless from sleeping, eating, soliciting, or, let’s face it, being seen at all in public, are older than most modern institutions. They have always been short-sighted political “solutions”, overshadowed by their long-term costs—financial costs to the city’s coffers, social costs to those sleeping rough, and moral costs to us all. After all, when none other than the Lord Mayor of Melbourne publicly abjures his homeless fellow Melbournians as a “running sore”, we are all diminished.

These laws don’t work because, common prejudices notwithstanding, homelessness is not a choice. Banning it is like ploughing the ocean. However many short-term carrots or sticks are proffered, our economy doesn’t work for everyone. Indeed, as 1,760 new Melbournians each week compete for increasingly unaffordable housing, it should be no surprise that more people are sleeping rough. Without long-term change, the most vulnerable among us will always need a place to go. And when private spaces are reserved for paying customers, our public spaces—for they are members of the public—will be continue to be their last resort.

I have spent over a decade researching homelessness in the US and Australia. Melbourne’s proposed sleeping ban is just the latest variation on an old theme. French poet, journalist and novelist Anatole France pointed out in the 19th century that “the law prohibits rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the street, and steal loaves of bread”. In the United States, that list has expanded in recent decades. In a years-long public relations nightmare, San Francisco arrested over a thousand people for sharing food. Las Vegas barred individuals from sharing food with anybody who appeared indigent. Seattle banned sitting or lying on the footpath. Santa Cruz banned—and confiscated—blankets. (Another media debacle.) Countless cities followed suit, also prohibiting public urination (despite scarce public toilets) and “aggressive” panhandling (subject though the term be to interpretation, hunger, and cold).

Advocates call this the criminalisation of homelessness, for although lacking shelter itself is not illegal, everything necessary to survive without it is. Australian cities like Melbourne and Brisbane are coming late to the game. Shall we follow the United States down this slippery slope?

If something can be a crime, it must be presumed a choice. The rationale here is that homelessness can be discouraged, much as the 19th century workhouses were designed to do. Following this line of thought, for example, Victorian police chief Graham Ashton accused rough sleepers recently evicted from Flinders Street of pretending in order to “fleece” tourists.

Yet, having met several of the evictees, I believe the chief’s claims are ill informed at best. Indeed, in 10 years, I have never met a single rough sleeper who would not prefer safe, dry accommodation.

However, sometimes compromises are necessary. As a good friend, veteran, and rough sleeper once explained: “Shelters are good places to get stabbed, to get your stuff stolen, or to get tuberculosis”. I had naively written him a list of the shelters in the city, not realising he had already tried them. My mistake was common enough. Working from my own stereotypes (perhaps like Ashton), I had forgotten that people who are homeless know more about homelessness than me. Usually they are making the best—often only—choices they can given their circumstances. Accordingly, some Flinders Street evictees explained that what shelter was available had been untenable. Their camp was a practical alternative for several reasons, including community, safety, and visibility to passersby who might make donations.

If homelessness is not a choice, these laws can do nothing to prevent it—or even to hide it for very long. Instead, they represent a hefty burden on the public purse, and an even greater one on shelterless people. Police are tasked with ticketing or arresting them. The courts, with prosecuting them. And the jails, with housing them. Upon release, the shelterless (now criminals, vital possessions confiscated or discarded) find themselves further from stability than before. A cycle begins, ever more inescapable. And their number does not diminish. Even the harshest Vagrancy Acts of Tudor England—which ordered vagrants branded with a V—were eventually forced to include provisions for charity, as the landless multiplied regardless of the punishments.

Although these bans do not work, they appear like clockwork wherever wealth and poverty compete for space. Seattle’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project found, for example, that the proliferation of anti-homeless laws across Washington State corresponded to increasing privatisation and for-profit development in public spaces. To the extent that Australian cities, too, embrace such developments, we can expect more such laws.

We have good evidence that the money can be better spent supporting the shelterless than prosecuting them. Through programs like “Housing First” in the United States (and in Australian trials), it turns out to be cheaper to simply give chronically homeless people shelter than to pay for the gamut of public services that accompany a life on the street. It must be said that Victorian state government does provide some assistance, including 40 transitional housing units immediately available to homeless in the CBD, and an additional 30 units by the end of the year. Nonetheless, such assistance cannot meet the needs of the 247 people sleeping rough in the CBD at last count, or the others who will come after them. (Evictees I spoke with said they had been offered only a few days’ accommodation at a motel.)

State and city governments must, therefore, invest more in public housing, and tame an inhumane housing market (with over 80,000 vacancies idling while rents rise). Despite their anti-homeless ordinances, some American cities offer promising models in this regard—San Francisco and New York practice rent control, Seattle regulates prohibitive move-in costs. However even these measures will fail some people. We must be open to all possible options for equitable coexistence, from tiny homes, as in Portland’s Dignity Village, to city-sanctioned encampments and safe parking lots, as trialled by Seattle. In this, Melbourne has an opportunity to steer Australia along a different path from that taken by so many American cities. We have an opportunity to learn to share our home and earn the moniker ‘most liveable city’.

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dumpsters, difference, and illiberal embodiment

the politics of detritus

Waste almost inevitably has a whiff of anarchy about it. Insofar as it is ejected from within a given social system according to that system’s peculiar norms, waste (or contact with it) carries within it the possibility of subverting those norms. To wit, the high-stakes markets and publics of post-Fordist consumer societies incorporate and exclude subjects according to diverse modes of embodiment—from genteel germ-phobia to homelessness. And in so doing, they also exclude a wealth of commercial waste from public circulation—from less-than-perfect food spurned by urbane consumers to real estate abandoned to property speculation and gentrification. Incipient within the commercial waste streams of these societies, therefore, are distinctive possibilities for what I’ll describe below as “illiberal embodiment”—both of the personal body and the body politic.

In particular, my research has focused on the ethnographic worlds of Dumpster-divers, squatters, and other scavengers who mine this detritus. My work has consisted of five years of multisited research and collaboration in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Melbourne (Australia), with each city’s respective chapters of Food Not Bombs—a global movement of anarchist soup kitchens that recover wasted commercial food surpluses (by donation or “dumpstering”), prepare them, and redistribute them publicly. Within such projects there is the possibility of embodying otherwise. Food Not Bombs and endeavors like it, I would argue, also create the conditions to queer categories of embodiment like race, class, and sex and interrogate their privileged incorporation by prevailing markets, publics, and institutions, cultivating emergent spaces of embodiment, contact, and collaboration across difference.

 

“Yo! Don’t get Food Not Bombs’ veggies moldy. Don’t unplug the fridge!!!” (The sensory world of Food Not Bombs’ shared kitchen space, New York City.) Photograph courtesy of Vikki Law.

“Yo! Don’t get Food Not Bombs’ veggies moldy. Don’t unplug the fridge!!!” (The sensory world of Food Not Bombs’ shared kitchen space, New York City.) Photograph courtesy of Vikki Law.

 dirty habits and abject economies

The ethnographic worlds in which I’ve moved are dirty—but not filthy. The sensory worlds of Dumpster-divers, squatters, punks, Food Not Bombs chapters, and other anarchist projects illustrate anthropologist Mary Douglas’ famous dictum that dirt is “matter out of place” (1984). In material terms, they’re largely harmless: in seven years of ethnographic research, I have only met two people who’ve been ill after eating dumpstered goods or dining with Food Not Bombs. (Compare that to most fast food establishments.) But in semiotic terms, the sights and smells of anarchist soup kitchens and their ilk are beyond the pale of prevailing public decency. They are crowded with signifiers of obsolescence, valuelessness, and disorder. They share a rough, unfinished aesthetic, from their salvaged pots and battered old appliances, to Dumpster-dived produce and a patent rejection of bourgeois body ritual. All the Food Not Bombs kitchens where I have cooked and collaborated have shared a certain je ne scent quoi—a common sensory palette that can often be identified by smell alone (slightly overripe produce, unwashed punk rockers, and so on).

These are symbolic political choices, to be sure. But it is all too easy to arrest our analysis here (and many do), either romanticizing or dismissing these efforts as mere gestures (heroic or hubristic, respectively). This ignores the matter at hand, literally: they also reflect a thoroughly pragmatic set of material, embodied practices. Chief among them is the reclamation of wasted surpluses. Punks, anarchists, Food Not Bombers, and fellow travelers in these countercultural worlds dive in commercial Dumpsters for unspoiled food and other goods; they wear perfectly serviceable second-hand clothes; they squat in abandoned buildings or simply live cheaply in devalued neighbourhoods.

By design, the post-Fordist consumer economy’s cup runneth over with such excess goods (cf. Packard 2011, Liboiron 2013), which sooner or later find themselves forgotten at its margins—their exchange value often negated long before their use value has expired. Often they’re obsolete before they’re even sold. Their abandonment in the Dumpster, their boarded up windows, and so on, seemingly constitute points of no return with respect to market exchange.

That certain enterprising scavengers instead, recover, revalorize, and recirculate these ex-commodities therefore amounts to a distinctly “dirty,” out-of-place sort of sociality from the point of view of the average consumer. Inspired by Mary Douglas, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva used the term “abjection” to describe the visceral, embodied experience of such moments of ambiguity or out-of-place-ness with respect to the formation of a self, an identity, or an ego (1982). Abjection for her is that unsettling revulsion that occurs within us at “the place where meaning collapses,” (2) whether that collapse is prompted by a corpse or the skin on a glass of unhomogenized milk. The subdued horror, germ-phobia, and creeping suspicion often attached to discarded, surplus, or second-hand goods could well be described in such terms.

From the point of view of the bourgeois consumer, then, these aftermarket practices amount to an abject kind of hexis—a set of embodied, enculturated rituals, repertoires, recipes, and tastes that are experienced as second nature or common-sense—that confounds the norms of liberal consumption. Where liberal consumers often find their stomachs turn at the thought of clambering into the Dumpster, for example, Dumpster-divers leap in with aplomb. Where the former’s attraction may be embedded in a constellation of fastidious and expensive body rituals (shaving, grooming, perfuming, gym-going…) the latter are often viscerally drawn in by the opposite (the unshaven, the unkempt, the naturally scented, the scrappy physique or the fuller-figured…). Where the formers’ anxieties and fears of contagion—seated deep in their limbic systems—are kept at bay by the security of a sell-by date or the hermetic seal on a single-use commodities, many abject anti-consumers’ confidence is more inspired by do-it-yourself solutions to their material needs. And so on.

This abject hexis has more than merely symbolic implications: in each city I met a wide range of people for whom Dumpster-diving, squatting, and other kinds of scavenging made possible new lives and new communities. To the extent that these abject embodiments are shared across Food Not Bombs chapters and related networks of Dumpster-divers, itinerant punks, and so on, they amount to a sort of abject economy, one animated by surplus rather than scarcity. It is true, perhaps, that this abject economy relies upon the capitalist one for its raw materials. But it is equally true that, as J.K. Gibson Graham (1996), Anna Tsing (2013), and others have argued, the capitalist economy inevitably relies on a diverse range of non-capitalist economies for its raw materials too (material and cultural alike). So the relationship could be said to be symbiotic rather than parasitic.

Such relationships, I would like to argue, are often politically productive. They may become the foundation of political formations and identities that by turns underwrite and contest the hegemonic institutions of what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli calls “late liberalism,” as I’ll discuss below (2011).

 

late liberalism and liberal embodiment

For Povinelli, “late liberalism” describes the present moment in politically and economically liberal societies, a moment shaped by the hegemony of neoliberal market logics, and also by the paradoxical imperative to discursively mark and manage the participation of a spectrum of social differences in a public sphere defined by the abstract equality, equivalence, and individuation of its participants (as consumers, as citizens). Late liberalism is therefore defined by that set of technologies and discourses by which difference is incorporated and recuperated into the social contracts of market and state. The doctrine of multiculturalism, for example, in which difference and culture are celebrated, and made economically productive at the same time as they are judirically and politically annulled, is a classic project of late liberalism. Marriage equality is another.

In the incorporation and management of difference, then, late liberalism is distinctly biopolitical. In other words, it is profoundly concerned with bodies and embodiment. In particular, certain kinds of embodiment make themselves readily available to such projects of liberal governmentality—which, in turn, make possible the discursive projects of the market and the state themselves. We might think of those sorts of hexis, then, as liberal embodiments. Liberal embodiments are, of course, a diverse species. The bodies of undocumented manual labourers are no less incorporated into the market economy than the bodies of bourgeois shoppers with their distinct palates and preferences. As Eva Cherniavsky has pointed out, bodies are differentially incorporated into relations of production (and, we might add, consumption) according to race, class, gender, sexuality, and a host of other differences (2006). Indeed, from Marx and Dubois on, class and race have both been recognised as differential embodiments of and for the market. Povinelli (cribbing from Foucault) illustrates some of the ways in which they, along with gender and sexuality, are differentially integrated into those biopolitical projects of late-liberal governmentality—from the clinic to the prison—that enable these very relations of production and consumption.

In other words, the politics of race, class, sexuality, and gender, have classically reflected liberal projects of embodiment. This is true whether we locate their ontology in technologies of governmentality and biopolitical incorporation—from the War on Drugs to the erosion of Roe versus Wade—or in those redemptive movements that aim to incorporate them differently—from the Civil Rights Movement to Marriage Equality. Such liberal embodiments persist as historically-specific formations largely to the extent that they are policed, both figuratively and literally, by the disciplinary power of liberal institutions. Differential incorporations of racialised bodies in the United States, for example, persist largely to the extent that they are underwritten by the expansion of the carceral state, the militarization of the border, and so on. Differential embodiments of class are underwritten by disciplinary trends like the criminalization of homelessness—those municipal ordinances that penalize the everyday practices of people without permanent shelter, like public sleeping, eating, and excreting. And so on.

The latter example, the criminalization of homelessness, is especially telling. Under the relevant statutes, a range of minor embodiments are declared uncivil, and juridically excluded from the public sphere, leaving only the more civil(ised) embodiments of downtown business and consumption. In just such ways do minor embodiments contribute to the larger liberal formations of embodiment (in this case formations of social class and bourgeois consumption).

 

Food Not Bombs diner and-or volunteer, Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1996. Photograph courtesy Vikki Law.

Food Not Bombs diner and-or volunteer, Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1996. Photograph courtesy Vikki Law.

radical social projects, queer encounters, and illiberal embodiment

In the same way, however, a constellation of minor embodiments may equally contribute to larger incipient formations of illiberal embodiment. Illiberal embodiments, then, are those enduring formations of hexis and habitus that evade or actively resist incorporation into the liberal biopolitical projects described above. And here is where we return to those Dumpster-divers, squatters, and other urban scavengers who reclaim the use value of those surpluses abandoned by liberal publics. We might think of their abject hexis as one kind of illiberal embodiment. There is no pretension here, of course, to a life lived “outside” of capital. (Indeed, many Dumpster-divers are critical of what they call “drop-out” culture, which naively pretends to live in this undiscovered country.) But nor do liberal economies or polities command all spaces and social worlds equally. As Povinelli points out, late liberal discourses live in an ongoing process of aggregation and disavowal of places, practices, and things. And in those things disavowed, there is the possibility for reassembling radical social projects. Such social projects, Povinelli writes, “disaggregate aspects of the social worlds and aggregate individual projects into a more or less whole,” (7). In other words, they represent queer rearrangements of prevailing discursive norms.

Anarchists sometimes put this prosaically: a common slogan reads, “Another world is possible, and exists in the shadows of this one.” To a large extent, that world is built of abandoned surpluses disavowed by late liberalism. The free feed-ins of 1960s radical street theatre collective, the San Francisco Diggers, for example, no less than the community organising and free breakfast programs of the Black Panthers, rested partly on the recovery of grocery surpluses that could be repurposed and redistributed. Fueled by such surpluses, excluded bodies and practices are freer to convene, and to constitute enduring worlds wherein they may imagine their relationships differently than under the prevailing liberal discourses.

In just such a fashion, Food Not Bombs has endured and grown steadily over three decades, from a single chapter in 1980, to hundreds of chapters on every continent but Antarctica. The social worlds of which it is a part have grown in corresponding fashion. In the process, it has often brought together both sheltered and unsheltered people—both at public food sharings and also in the kitchen—in relationships not possible within the typical liberal soup kitchen or food bank—with its sharp distinction between volunteer-providers and clients. Food Not Bombs’ informal structure, and the permissive atmosphere of community spaces, squats, and low-rent communal houses where it often cooks (which, importantly, tend to disavow or discourage any reliance on the police or the carceral state), the plentitude of its resources, and so on, also cultivate what geographers Victoria Lawson and Sarah Elwood have called “spaces of encounter” within which a range of people may collaborate, with some of the usual classed and racialised differences attenuated (if never entirely suspended) (2014). In a sense, then, social class itself is queered in the space of the kitchen. Similarly, Food Not Bombs and other anarchist projects are often spaces of encounter for new arrivals in a city—including both domestic and international migrants. To the extent that they create more egalitarian spaces of encounter, not directly premised on market or state recognition (and even hostile to these things), these social projects also queer categories of racial and national recognition. Thus do the minor illiberal embodiments—like squatting or dumpstering—scale up into larger illiberal configurations of identity and agency.

The privileges and oppressions that accompany liberal regimes of difference do not, of course, simply disappear at the doorstep. As one Black punk rocker put it, in James Spooner’s brilliant documentary Afropunk, his fellow white punks, can often just “put on a suit” and blend back into mainstream society—a privilege not available to punks and anarchists of colour. Nonetheless, as I’ve written above, the market and the state do not command all spaces equally, and the ethnographic spaces of encounter in which I have worked function in ways that resist or queer subjects’ wholesale interpellation within those liberal forms of embodiment described above. Their corresponding privileges and the projects of liberal governmentality that underwrite them are disrupted in the interest of, if not growing the proverbial “other world,” at least holding space for it. A “radical social project,” in Povinelli’s prosaic terms, is in this sense not only possible, but it endures in the detritus of liberal social worlds.

(This essay appeared in September 2015 in a quartet of essays entitled “Emergent Socialities of Waste” on the Discard Studies blog.)

 

references:

Cherniavsky, Eva. 2006. Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics of Capital. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Douglas, Mary. 1984. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Ark.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It). Cambridge: Blackwell.

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.         Lawson, Vicky and Sarah Elwood. 2013. Encountering Poverty: Space, Class, and Poverty Politics. In Antipode 46(1): 209-228.

Liboiron, Max. 2013. Modern Waste as Strategy. In Lo Squaderno: Explorations in Space and Society. Special edition on Garbage & Wastes. No 29.

Packard, Vance. 2011 [1960]. The Waste Makers. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Spooner, James. 2003. Afropunk: The Original “Rock and Roll Nigger” Experience. (Independently released.)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2013. Sorting Out Commodities: How Capitalist Value is Made Through Gifts. In HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Vol. 13, No. 1: 21–43.

 

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neutralizing homelessness, 2015: the story so far

(This essay is adapted from a panel given, along with Tim Harris, of Seattle’s Real Change street paper, and Tony Sparks, of San Francisco State University at the 2015 annual Conference on Ending Homelessness organised by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. That panel was inspired, and the three of us brought together through the work of the Relational Poverty Network—on whose blog this essay will also appear. Our panel, therefore, attempted to treat the question of homelessness—and how to end it—relationally. The work of ending homelessness, we argued, must entail more than new shelters, additional services, or more money—although these are surely necessary. Rather, the panel called us to interrogate and transform the larger political, economic, and cultural context that creates it.)

 

introduction: thinking relationally about homelessness

Herein, I’d like to revisit Peter Marcuse’s influential essay, Neutralizing Homelessness, to see what new light his conclusions—now nearly thirty years old—can help us shed on the contemporary landscape of homelessness in the United States (and, increasingly, of comparable nations). It might be a testament to his insight, or an indictment of our inaction, that much of what he wrote still holds true.

“The new situation that explains the current rise in homelessness is,” he wrote in 1988, “on the economic side, deindustrialisation. Politically it can be attributed to the new conservatism. On the housing end, its reflection might well be labeled the gentrification/abandonment pattern,” (Marcuse 1988: 129). The conservatism is no longer new, but beyond that, he might just as easily have written this today. And yet each of these factors has evolved in ways that demand attention.

What might be most important about his analysis, though, was not any of these three conclusions, but rather his method. That is, he approached homelessness not as a phenomenon, but as a symptom of changes that were interrelated and systematic. Nowhere in his essay does he try to understand why a given type of person comes to be homeless, or how to keep more formerly homeless people from returning to the streets, or how best to organise an encampment. These are all important questions, of the sort often debated by city councils, service providers, but they are not questions about how to end homelessness. Indeed, as Marcuse puts it, “First and foremost, homelessness must be seen as a component, an extreme reflection, of general social, economic, and political patterns, not as an isolated problem, separate and apart,” (134).

(People experiencing homelessness, of course, know this better than anyone. Those of you reading this who are homeless or have been, forgive me for stating the obvious. It’s not always obvious to everyone else.)

Marcuse’s systematic way of thinking is profoundly relational. This is something qualitative researchers like anthropologists and geographers do especially well. (I’m an anthropologist who has worked for several years chronicling the work of Food Not Bombs, an anarchist soup kitchen, in Seattle and several other cities. Tony Sparks is a geographer who worked with Tent City in Seattle.) Where the language of statistics can demonstrate tidy relationships of causation or correlation—an indispensable language for speaking to policy makers—they often also artificially isolate an abstract category like “the homeless” or “the poor” from their context—and from the rest of us.

Far from muddying the issue, as some overly linear thinkers claim, Marcuse’s kind of plural thinking multiplies our sites of intervention. Consider Marcuse’s solution, for example: “Theoretically, the problem of homelessness has three answers, corresponding to its three causes: uncouple the housing system from the rest of the private market system and make it respond to need; change the economic system so that all have a decent living wage; or provide government subsidies to provide housing for those who cannot get it through the private market,” (129).

With that plural framing in mind, I’d like to think through some of the evolutions in each of these three realms over the last three decades.

 

homelessness, post-fordism, and the city

Let’s begin not with housing as Marcuse does, but with deindustrialization, because in a way, this is the broadest, most far-reaching consideration. Through that lens, some of the developments on the other two fronts can be made more sensible. What Marcuse was pointing out was the already visible outline of the global social and economic system would be called post-Fordism. “Fordism” because it shared the mass consumption and mass production exemplified by Henry Ford’s assembly line—a model that was the basis of the economic system of the United States and many other capitalist countries in the mid-twentieth century. And “post” because the mode of manufacturing has changed. This is not only a matter of outsourcing, although the loss of many manufacturing jobs to cheaper labour forces in other countries has left a definitive hole in the US economy—one not filled by the proliferation of low-waged service industries. More than that, though, as Marcuse put it, “Both the extent and the nature of unemployment and employment have changed, and so have the power relationships of employers and employees,” (130).

Marcuse was writing in 1988. He hadn’t even heard of NAFTA yet, but he was already anticipating the downward harmonization effect that outsourcing would have not only on the jobs lost, but on the jobs left behind. As US workers competed with workers abroad, working conditions, wages, and collective bargaining power at home were brought more in line with the shorter-term contracts, worse working conditions, lower wages, and the lack of collective bargaining power abroad.

The net effect was a national distribution of incomes that began to look more and more like a camel with two humps—and with more precarious futures all around. This growing disparity is significant for two reasons. First, of course, because it left workers in the bottom hump profoundly more vulnerable. And second, because it laid the groundwork for some of the class antagonisms that fueled the “new conservatism,” which we’ll talk about in a moment.

A third reason to pay attention to the newly precarious situation on the lower rungs of the income ladder is because it has led to a great deal of movement and migration—both within and between countries. Although it has featured relatively little in the public conversation about homelessness, one thing we need to be talking about is that fact that this new class of migratory labor—from fishermen to farm workers—is especially at risk of homelessness.

Three decades into these large-scale economic transformations, their effects can perhaps be best appreciated when viewed at the scale of the city. (I would be remiss if I didn’t pause to acknowledge the recent protests in Baltimore, Ferguson, and across the country, where the systematic disparities of the new economy have found expression in not only economic oppression and segregation, but racialised and militarised policing regimes.)

It’s worth examining, however, the ways in which these transformations have affected different cities differently. Some places, like Detroit, have found themselves devastated, while others have been well-placed to attract well-paid white-collar service industries. The sociologist Saskia Sassen calls the largest and most successful of these “global cities,” insofar as they concentrate the work of managing the global economy—corporate headquarters, research and development, information technology and so on (2001). Cities like Seattle have in fact fared especially well in terms of median income, property values, and so on. According to Sassen, however, they also exemplify the best-of-times-worst-of-times logic of the post-Fordist economy, as incomes in these cities are often starkly polarised between white-collar service industries and blue-collar service industries. (Seattle is exemplary in this respect (ibid).)

In contrast to Seattle’s boom, we might consider the story of a place like Stockton, California, which made headlines in the wake of the foreclosure crisis for its record number of foreclosures and its ultimate descent into bankruptcy. But the financial crisis merely compounded the bleak prospects of those residents who work primarily in its agricultural and service industries—industries which now promise low wages and precarious futures to many of the migrants, people of colour, and working class folks who live there (many of whom, we might add, are children or grandchildren of an earlier generation of economic refugees from the Dust Bowl). In any case, by the early 1990s, the city already led most of the nation in measures like its per capita murder rate.

But although deindustrialisation has affected cities across the US differently, it has not affected them separately. Not only are their fates tied to the same sea-changes in the national and global economies. The stakes for cities across the U.S. are deeply shared. Some of us may remember, for example, Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran’s editorial threat in the early 1990s that Seattle needed to act quickly to insulate upstanding consumers from the blight of panhandlers and public eye-sores, lest the shoppers abandon the city and Seattle become one of the country’s “formerly great places to live.” Sidran was explicitly identifying Seattle’s potential futures with other deindutrialised cities like Detroit. And that threat was instrumental in passing a range of “civility” ordinances which criminalised things like sitting on the sidewalk during business hours. (We’ll return to those civility ordinances in a moment.)

 

gentrification, foreclosure, and manufactured scarcity

With such an emerging portrait of the diverse dimensions and shared stakes of deindustrialization in American cities, we can begin to imagine how the new economic landscape might remake not only incomes but expenses, and particularly the cost of housing.

In 1988, Marcuse highlighted role of gentrification—and also of the related phenomenon of warehousing, in which housing was left empty while landlords speculated on the rising value of surrounding properties. And of course, these two phenomena are no less part of the contemporary landscape. Indeed, Saskia Sassen points out that high-income gentrification is part and parcel of the development of the “global” cities I described a moment ago (2001). And few people here will need reminding that global cities like Seattle, San Francisco, or New York City have some of the most prohibitively high rents in the country as a result. Marcuse also points out that it is not simply economic trends but also government policy that promotes this sort of gentrification. And again, we need only look at the public subsidies thrown at new locations like Seattle’s South Lake Union, or San Francisco’s South of the Market neighbourhood to find city government actively trying to attract high-income earners and appreciate property values.

Ironically, the soaring cost of housing in these cities often coincides with a surprising vacancy rate. The housing activist organisation Picture the Homeless, for example, counted enough vacant buildings and lots to accommodate New York City’s entire homeless population five times over.

Under these circumstances, it is not a surprise that housing markets do not always behave according to the rational logic predicted by free market enthusiasts. Indeed, according to sociologists Logan and Molotch, real estate markets in booming cities like Seattle are often under the influence of what they call “growth machines,” complex systems of urban elites, businesses, and policy makers that reinforce and amplify each others’ incentives for further development (Logan and Molotch 1987). In these growth machines, not only does it often seem profitable to keep on developing new real estate projects beyond the city’s immediate need for them, but paradoxically, the growing supply can inflate the cost of housing—rather than shrinking it, as the capitalist law of supply and demand would seem to predict. (A quick reality check with Seattle’s growing housing costs and proliferating property developments would seem to confirm this, despite the dogged, perhaps naïve, insistence of some development lobbyists to the contrary.)

Oddly enough, though, to return to our comparison with Stockton, both economic growth and recession can result in the displacement of people from homes. While, in Seattle, the skyrocketing rents have helped to push the number of homeless residents to over ten thousand, in Stockton the reverse phenomenon has had a comparable effect—the bottom fell entirely out of local housing markets leading up to the recent recession (partly as a result of predatory lending, itself a kind of property speculation), and the city led the nation in foreclosures, with one out of every ten homes being foreclosed upon at the height of the crisis.

If these two different post-industrial urban scenarios seem extreme, however, it is worth pointing out that such manufactured scarcity is not out of the ordinary for the functioning of a housing market. According to the Census Bureau, in the United States, there were approximately 13,791,000 units of housing vacant year-round in 2014. Compare that to the 578,424 people estimated by the National Alliance to End Homelessness to experience homelessness on any given night during the same year (quite possibly a conservative estimate) and you arrive at the figure of almost twenty-four empty homes for every person experiencing homelessness.

 

citizenship, entitlement, and criminalization of poverty

The third of Marcuse’s three factors, what he called the “new conservativism” in 1988, is of course old hat by now. However in some ways its proliferation and evolution has been the richest and most innovative over the last three decades. Marcuse highlights, of course, deep cuts to the safety net—particularly in terms of income supports and federal housing subsidies—in the name of fiscal responsibility, free-market economics, or the disciplining of labour markets. And, to be sure, these have continued apace, particularly with the Republican “welfare reforms” of the early 1990s. There is now, simply put, less emergency assistance available, and less federally subsidized low-income housing than at the time of Marcuse’s writing.

One of the key arms of this new conservativism worked at the level of an attack on entitlements—or even the very notion of entitlement (to food, shelter, cash assistance, and so on). However a, parallel development partly anticipated by Marcuse, is the growth of charitable nonprofit endeavours to fill the spaces left behind by those lost entitlements.

With great foresight, Marcuse observed that these charitable projects, often run with volunteer labour rather than state funding, had the net effect of depoliticizing poverty. Marcuse wrote, “The chartitable tradition leads to a narrow view of homelessness… The emphasis of [such] groups was a single-mindedly charitable one limited to the particular object of their concern. Such church groups are an important and frequently effective voice for specific programs but do not question the housing system as a whole,” (132).

To wit, as Marcuse was writing in the 1980s, food banks, soup kitchens, and other emergency food programs were recent innovations, imagined, like shelters, to respond temporarily to a passing economic crisis. But by 1998, when the crisis had passed and the emergency food programs remained, sociologist Janet Poppendieck was able to remark on their large-scale acceptance and naturalisation as having undermined the entitlements of citizenship (1998). Why, she asks aloud, did the United States naturalise voluntary charity to deal with such emergencies, rather than reaffirm the right to eat? The net effect, in the present day, according to anthropologist Maggie Dickinson, is that the volunteer labour that staffs emergency food programs amounts to an outsourced “third tier” of the shrinking welfare state (Dickinson 2014: 118).

Poppendieck sums up the situation with Mark Twain’s rejoinder that after his travels he had found the United States “Kinder, but less just” than he had expected.

While homelessness, hunger, and the eroding safety net has been publicly depoliticised in this way, Marcuse points out that it has been part of the erosion a range of liberal concessions achieved social movements during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Where Marcuse emphasizes the retreat of the federal government from supporting those experiencing homelessness, in the last three decades the new conservatism often devolved upon cities. Mark Sidran’s anti-sitting ordinance and other such “civility” laws, for example—referred to by some homeless advocates as the “criminalization of homelessness”—have proliferated across United States cities. Recent research by Seattle University counted over 288 new such city laws passed since 2000 in Washington State alone.

Closely echoing Marcuse’s argument, the geographer Neil Smith identified such laws as part of a political project “revanchism”—a term alluding to the vengeful the 18th century crackdown by Paris elites on the underclasses who they felt had stolen their city (Smith 1996). In like fashion, civility ordinances constituted part of a suite of urban policies that reasserted middle and upper class interests over the public spaces of the city through policing a range of so-called “broken windows” and perceived threats to public order. This affected not only homeless denizens, but a range of working class, minority, and immigrant constituencies, all of whom have disproportionately born the brunt of deindustrialisation. Seattle sociologists Katherine Beckett and Steven Herbert, for example, found that extrajudicial exclusion orders used in many cities ostensibly to deter petty drug offenses and other instances of disorder were disproportionately and often indiscriminately used to exclude poor people and people of colour from public spaces (2010).

Perhaps the most recent manifestations of this revanchist tendency which directly target homelessness have included a range of prohibitions of public food sharing. Seattle, for example, permits outdoor food sharing in only a single location—under the freeway, a stiff uphill walk from a number of shelters, and well away from downtown foot traffic. These feeding prohibitions clearly illustrate the entanglement between cities’ post-industrial economic stakes and an assertion of middle- and upper-income control over the spaces of the city. (Remember, after all, Mark Sidran’s alarmed warning—if left unaddressed, the visible threat of homelessness might drive away the shoppers.) Describing the decision-making that led to the location of Seattle’s single permitted outdoor meal program, for example, one local advocate I spoke to described to me suggesting to a city councilmember that the outdoor meal site represented an opportunity for expansion—to include a range of indoor-outdoor services and projects for social justice. According to the advocate, the city councilmember responded by saying “over my dead body… that’s not my constituency.”

 

conclusions

Such prejudices and priorities, of course, don’t represent simple knee-jerk after-thoughts about the problem of homelessness. They further compound the problem itself—the Seattle University study I mentioned a moment ago, for example, also found that antihomeless laws actually cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than simply helping people. As such they remind us that every facet of the three factors I have outlined above is intimately entangled with the others. The postindustrial economic stakes of a city are closely tied to the spending priorities and class antagonisms expressed in its municipal ordinances. The dwindling of affordable housing is directly tied to the growth of income inequality. The proliferation of charitable volunteer projects is directly implicated in the erosion of public entitlements. And so on.

The take home point I would like to end on, then, is that, as Marcuse reminds us, homeless advocates cannot be single-issue activists. Homelessness mustn’t be depoliticized or divorced from the range of systematic factors that produce it. As he puts it, “Building temporary shelters is no solution to a permanent, structural problem,” (134).

We must think of education policy as homelessness policy. Zoning policy as homelessness policy. Food policy as homelessness policy. Parking enforcement policy as homelessness policy. (Indeed, thanks to my colleague Graham Pruss, we’re only now coming to understand how directly ill-thought-out parking enforcement can push people from car-camping—the last vestige of shelter they have left—onto the street.)

In other words, we need to think relationally. Again, of course, anyone reading this who has ever been homeless knows only too well how interconnected these issues are. It remains then for the rest of us to prick up our ears.

 

references

Beckett, Katherine and Steven Herbert. 2010. Banished: The New Social Control in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dickinson, Maggie. 2014. Consuming Poverty: The Unexpected Politics of Food Aid in an Era of Austerity. PhD Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York.

Logan, John R. and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Poppendieck, Janet. 1998. Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and The End of Entitlement. New York: Penguin Books.

Sassen, Saskia. 2001 The Global City, second edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Neil. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge.

 

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ten years into seattle’s ten-year plan to end homelessness: lessons for the next ten years

Like a lot of US cities, Seattle followed a federal mandate to implement a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, beginning in July 2005. Now, in the tenth of its ten years, homelessness is not over. Ironically enough, it has grown steadily over the last decade. In the last few years, the evidence has become impossible to ignore. People huddle in our doorways in the morning. Tents and camps spill over onto almost any level patch of green space in the downtown area. Even the most blinkered among us begins to suspect that we live in the midst of a slow-motion economic crisis—an economy that rewards some of our neighbours richly, others not at all.

According to the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, more than 24,000 residents will experience homelessness in any given year. On any given night in Seattle over nine thousand people will be homeless—that’s a fourteen percent increase over the previous year. Not coincidentally, rent in Seattle has increased by almost that much—eleven percent—since 2010. That’s more than any other large city in the country. In fact, Seattle has become the fastest growing city in the country. What I’d like to do here is to sketch out some provisional theses for future work on the relationship between poverty, shelter, and the growth of ostensibly “world-class” cities like Seattle.

It is precisely the failure of Seattle’s ten year plan that raises these issues, and therefore, also raises the possibility of a more radical, relational, multiscalar approach to ending the crisis of homelessness. My thinking here comes out of five years of ethnographic research in Seattle with shelterless residents, advocates, and the anarchist soup kitchen called Food Not Bombs.

Ostensibly, Seattle’s original plan emphasized the construction of new affordable housing and new pathways to permanent housing, while streamlining or shrinking the existing emergency shelter system. The Committee, a “broad coalition of government, business, faith communities, nonprofits, and homeless advocates claims some successes—for example, in developing new housing units. But it has equally been the subject of a range of harsh criticisms. They range from relative complacency and underfunding to misguided priorities, inadequate representation, and selective representation of its data. (I’ll come back to some of these in a moment.) For now, it is enough to point out that Seattle’s affordable housing stock still, according to advocates, falls dreadfully short of demand, and the number of shelterless people continues to grow. The Committee has acknowledged these developments, but none too loudly.

The larger context of the plan’s failure, conspicuously absent from the Committee’s public statements until recently, has been Seattle’s ongoing transformation into a global city. Global cities, according to Saskia Sassen, who coined the term, are not defined by their “world class” amenities or standard of living. Rather, they are cities that have come to perform key command functions of the global economy: while manufacturing is decentralised, casualised, and feminized throughout the globe, global cities agglomerate the informational skills and infrastructure that make that decentralization possible: telecommunications, finance, accounting, marketing, information technology, and so on. These white-collar industries themselves depend on low-waged service industries, from janitors to restaurants, and so Sassen postulates that the distribution of income in global cities is polarized. It resembles less a normal distribution and more a camel with two humps, huddled at either end the income spectrum.

Such a city is Seattle. As information technology and other white collar industries boom, the median income has climbed to $70,000. The highest 20 percent of income earners averaged $248,000 per annum in 2013, up $15,000 dollars from the previous year (ibid.). The bottom 20 percent averaged just $13,000 (ibid.). In global cities, however, the cost of living and the qualitative dimensions of the city’s life are largely dictated by the top twenty percent. Indeed, Seattle might be argued to be in the throes of what Harvey Molotch called the “growth machine,” as new housing in excess of demand seems to be paradoxically raising the cost of shelter. Seattle’s rising tide has not floated all the boats. Growth and development are not natural allies with any plan to end homelessness.

The absence of this context from the city’s ten-year plan indicates a fundamentally unrelational way of thinking about homelessness and its solutions. Indeed, the plan established its original targets without any allowance for Seattle’s potential growth, or its implications for housing development, income inequality, public spending, or homelessness. As if homelessness existed in an ontological vacuum, quite apart from the rest of the city. A range of advocates have challenged this unrelationality over the last decade, however. Early on, they successfully opposed the plan’s intent to phase out emergency shelter as shelter-dwellers were moved into long-term housing—arguing that this amounted to a profoundly myopic zero-sum game when there were already several thousand more shelterless people than there were shelter beds. Further, others have suggested that the amount of new low-income housing reported by the Committee failed to take into account the growth of the city’s median income (low-income is defined at 30% of Area Median Income, which, as we’ve seen, remains far out of the reach of the bottom twenty percent of income earners), not to mention the equally rapid loss of existing affordable housing stock to development, as Seattle Housing Authority cedes the land to eager developers. Finally, at the urging of the recent movement by homeless activists to “Occupy the Committee to End Homelessness in King County,” the Committee has begun to include more meaningful input from shelterless people themselves, and to shift its emphasis from a singular concentration on low-income housing to a more diverse cross-section of services and constituents—from homeless youth to car campers—and even systemic root causes, such as education and jobs.

These discussions are deeply encouraging, and point the way to more holistic, relational principles (emerging from a more relational conversation, that finally includes homeless people) for overcoming the current crisis of homelessness, not in a vacuum, but as it is shaped by the political economy of the global city—an approach which does not take the city’s growth and redevelopment as a given, but which rather aims at a new, more compassionate definition for what really constitutes a “world-class” place to live.

(This essay was originally published in Anthropology News as “Ending Homelessness in the Global City”.)

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like a picnic, only bigger, and with strangers

The squad car pulled up into the park, right onto the paving stones, and stopped eight paces from the planter. Not much of a planter, mind you. Two anaemic elms and a scrubby young Douglas fir, not so much tended to as prevented from dying by the parks department. They served mainly to frame two of the large Chinookan totem poles, carved by a local artist, at the centre of the triangular patch of woodchips and dirt. The totem poles are lovely—majestic even—and survived Occidental Park’s million-dollar facelift two years before by the skin of their wooden teeth.[i] But the planter itself was not much to speak of. A low stone wall bordered its north edge, and that’s where we stood. Lined up on the wall: our pots, pans, plates, cups, and cutlery. We stood behind them as people filed past for a free Sunday dinner that inevitably consisted of coffee, fresh fruit, baked-and-or-stir-fried vegetables (it was sometimes unclear, even to us, by the time we took them down to the park), an unpopular but ubiquitous salad, and if we were particularly on top of our game, dessert. Apple crisp was not uncommon. “We” in this case means the Seattle chapter of Food Not Bombs. This is all food that would have been thrown away by local markets, so we collect it, cook it, and hand it out weekly. I announced the menu and translated it into Spanish for the benefit of some of the diners—who had come all the way from Mexico, Guatemala, and further south for the privilege of joining Seattle’s casual labour pool and eating in the park of a downtown Sunday.

The officer walked purposefully up to the four or five of us serving food, and forewent any small talk whatsoever. “You are being audio and videotaped,” she said, resting her hands on her duty belt, “and I have warned you about this before.” It wouldn’t be too much to say she was being a bit surly. Not to mention redundant, in a way, because we were videotaping her as well. (This is why I know, for example, how many paces away she parked. I’m a decent ethnographer, but not that good.)

There’s some irony in the fact that both she and our rag-tag soup kitchen felt the need to document each other’s presence here in the park. In her mouth, it sounded like a warning—which she followed up by reminding me personally that she had already copied down my name and address on her last visit, a few weeks ago, and passed them along to the appropriate parties. For us, it was a kind of protection—we gathered that the city might be less vigorous about discouraging public food-sharing if we could publicly circulate images of them doing so.

The officer went on: “Right now, I’m going to—suffice it to say you are to step out of the planter.” (Her emphasis, not mine). “I already talked about this. This is a planted area; you cannot be in there. You cannot serve hot food in the park. You know that already.”

On her last visit, she had told us to pack up our stuff and vacate the park—which was, unsurprisingly, somewhat poorly received by a number of our diners. They spat jokes at her that I admit, I thought were funny, but would have been ill-advised to laugh at, given the circumstances. (“Calling all cars: felony feeding at Occidental Park,” or something to that effect.) Perhaps picking her battles, and preferring not to address a small crowd of understandably pissed off homeless people, she had ignored them and instead took the issue up with me, chiding us for stomping around in a planted area. Meanwhile, picking our battles, we had finished feeding the people in the line and packed up the remaining food before anyone else showed up.

Upon her return, she remembered me and addressed me directly. This time, she said, she wasn’t going to make us leave. Instead, she told us to get our stuff out of the planter.  “I won’t have you standing in there,” she said, and gestured concernedly towards the planter. “That I have a problem with.”

Not much of a planter, mind you. But her priorities can’t have been lost on the diners within earshot, most of whom were sleeping rough or paying five dollars a night to stay in the nearby rescue missions: The scrubby trees, such as they were, were framed as the hapless victims in all this.

Or, more properly, such were the priorities of City Hall. While she certainly seemed to take a personal affront to our little operation, this officer was acting in the service of a more concerted policy. This was the summer of 2008, and it was our fourth visit from the police in two months. (And our second visit from her.) One of them told us that the mayor’s office had asked parks department employees to “dial 911” whenever they saw anyone handing out food. (It wasn’t clear whether the officer had been speaking figuratively or not.) Mercifully, not all of the parks workers complied. Sometimes we offered them a few doughnuts and promised to be out of the park promptly. (And even when they did call, I imagine, the police sometimes found more pressing things to do.) Prior to that, downtown parks workers had carried copies of an open letter from Parks and Recreation informing would-be-do-gooders that the city allowed outdoor meal programs to operate in one place and one place only: Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street. They’d hand us a copy when they came through the park to empty the garbage cans. Privately, a few homeless advocates who’d spoken with Mayor Greg Nickels confided in me that he didn’t approve of outdoor meal programs. And between 2007 and 2008, on the heels of the city’s downtown parks “renaissance” in 2006 (read: expensive remodelling, designed partly to discourage ‘undesirables’—according to the firm contracted to design its new incarnation), the mayor’s office made a concerted push to channel rogue soup kitchens like us up to Sixth and Columbia. We received copies of the letter no less than five times from parks employees, other meal providers, and even emailed to us at the web site for the Seattle chapter of Food Not Bombs.

Having browsed the parks code, however, without finding any unambiguous prohibition of public food sharing, we decided to keep bringing dinner to Occidental Park. (“Events” required a permit, but a few of us reasoned it was more like a picnic than an event—only bigger, and with strangers.) Even now, despite its ambitious redevelopment and the subsequent anti-feeding campaign, the park is a place where people who are hungry or homeless often pass the hours on a Sunday afternoon. It has a long history, in fact, of such tensions between economic development and material privation. Situated at the bottom of the nation’s original Skid Road (so-named for the logs that skidded down Profanity Hill to the local saw mill), Occidental Park[ii] and the surrounding Pioneer Square neighbourhood were among Seattle’s very first neighbourhoods, supporting both the city’s burgeoning timber industry and a cut-rate economy of migrant labour, cheap taverns and other insubstantial housing. Since then, the winners and losers in Pioneer Square’s economy have often laid competing claims, formal and defacto, to the area. We imagined our meal as one small part of this history.

The official outdoor meal site, in contrast to Occidental Park, is subject to no claim at all. It is something of a no-man’s land: under the freeway, outside the metro buses’ ride-free zone, uphill and relatively distant from many of the city’s shelters and from downtown foot traffic. And although police crackdowns on unsanctioned meals were ostensibly intended “for safety’s sake and public health’s sake,” according to the Mayor’s office, the effect of deliberately concentrating under the same freeway pillars most everybody seeking outdoor assistance has not always been to create a welcoming, antiseptic dining experience. While most of the meal providers working there continue to make unimpeachable efforts (and unimpeachable food) and feed thousands of people every year, the space can be crowded and can force people into close quarters with others they might rather avoid—be it for fear of assault or for other reasons. One diner also told us the police sometimes patrolled the line of diners—sometimes looking for people with outstanding warrants—which might be a comfort to some diners, but not for others. (And not just the violent ones: in a city where camping in the park or sitting on the sidewalk is prohibited, it’s not hard for homeless people to acquire arrest warrants). And, of course, the shelter of the freeway accommodates diverse bodily functions overnight. It often smells like stale piss. All of which raises questions about the city’s criteria for “safety” and “health,” and from whose perspective they’ve been defined. Despite the relatively heroic efforts of meal providers and advocates who work at the site, its very existence is a trace of the bitter, fractious politics of hunger and homelessness in the city. And ultimately, that politics leaves out the voices of people who are homeless, hungry, and would rather eat elsewhere.

On her first visit, our afore-mentioned officer of the peace had in fact asked me why we hadn’t moved our operation up to the official site, to which I replied with the afore-cited reasons. Her solution: we should focus on providing transport to all the hungry people who were disabled or too ill to walk up to the official site. I think she knew she’d lost the argument on pragmatic grounds at that point, but she nonetheless (or maybe consequently) also threatened to issue me a parks exclusion ticket—which would have made serving trickier. Thankfully, she forwent that. (Although the next time I saw her she did try to suggest that I had provided her with false information on her previous visit—another reason it’s nice to have a videographer handy when you’re talking to the police).

In fact, that was the last we heard from the police for quite a while. Conceivably, in the shadow of the global financial meltdown later that summer—and its casualties, left in sudden need of shelter and food—the mayor’s office decided we just weren’t worth the hassle. A local journalist had also been kind enough to visit us and publish a photograph of one of our conversations with the police (see below), along with a decidedly even-handed article about the whole business, so that might have helped our case, too.

(from The Seattle Stranger, June 5, 2008. Photo by Jonah Spangenthal Lee.)

(The article seemed to get quite a lot of attention, in fact. People who knew nothing else about Food Not Bombs or homelessness in Seattle often knew about the article. They talked to me about the crackdowns even months after it was published.) Whether the city felt like the stakes of issuing parks exclusion tickets to us under public scrutiny were too high, or they simply had more important things to worry about after the “great recession,” they have more or less left the group alone since then. In the intervening years, Food Not Bombs has kept sharing our dinner in Occidental Park on Sunday afternoons. We’ve even been joined by a few other church groups. And the planter survives, unperturbed by our efforts, to this day.

***

This was, of course, not the only moment of discord between Food Not Bombs and the Seattle Police Department. Participants from several other phases in the group’s twenty-year tenure in Seattle have narrated to me similar periods in which the group’s presence provoked city agencies, local businesses, or both, to pressure them to move. Nor is Seattle unique in this respect. Food Not Bombs co-conspirators from chapters in San Francisco, New York City, Orlando and other cities told me the same kinds of stories, from different periods throughout the last thirty years or so. And while the group’s anarchist leanings incline it towards civil disobedience more than most other public meal projects, these stories have nonetheless been multiplied by homeless advocates and service providers around the country over the same timeframe. Dozens of cities, perhaps more, around the United States and in other market-centric nations, have used a variety of tactics, subtle and militant, ad-hoc and carefully planned, to restrict or discourage these efforts: Parks-use permits, health code restrictions, zoning laws, informal pressures, among others. Publics and policy makers, it is clear, have often reacted to growing crises of housing and homelessness by prohibiting and prosecuting the free public distribution of food.

These developments are part of a body of municipal laws and policies which homeless advocates have sometimes called ‘the criminalisation of homelessness.’ They range from ordinances outlawing ‘aggressive’ panhandling, loitering, and public urination to curfews in public parks and extrajudicial exclusion orders like Seattle’s “parks exclusion” tickets.  Strictly speaking, these advocates are spot on: In cities like Seattle where social safety nets can be spotty, ad hoc, and occasionally Kafkaesque affairs, where people without shelter sometimes have no other recourse than these prohibited activities, homelessness itself becomes a petty crime.

But these policies need to be understood, too, on a larger scale. Like homelessness itself, they represent transformations in the fabric of urban living which have been both cause and effect throughout these vexed decades of political and economic (neo)liberalisation. Cities like Seattle are perpetually globalising, investing in their economic and cultural footholds in the ever-shifting terrain of the global economy. And the cultural economies of these cities are constantly remade by and for that terrain. If, for example, prohibitions of free, public meals are proliferating from city to city in the United States and elsewhere, they are also remaking not simply the lives of people without reliable incomes or shelter, but the cultural economy of eating itself—and therefore of life. Mighty urban economies such as Seattle’s, I would like to suggest, produce waste and abjection in more or less direct proportion to the economic value they create, and yet to function they must keep each circulating away from the other. This is most poignantly true of eating, as the geography of food surpluses and scarcity, waste and want, are carefully managed. To remake urban life in such a way asserts a novel, globalised configuration of governmental control and sovereignty at the scale of the urban (rather than, say, the national or the international). But this urban life, remade, neither sits still nor does what it’s told. Its component elements—variously segregated, sanctioned, submerged, or subsidised—emerge from and thresh against each others’ edges in myriad ways. Homelessness, hunger, and survival itself are not only, in a sense, created by these policies; they also exceed every effort to manage them, and in turn, they unravel and reform the city, the state, and the social.

(This is an excerpt adapted from my doctoral dissertation, completed in 2013.)


[i] The Project for Public Spaces, contracted to reconceptualise the park, suggested “relocating at least a couple of the totems to allow for activities to occur in the space,” such as performances and games (p.17). Note also that the totems do, indeed, feature carved wooden teeth.

[ii]Note, that the land on which Occidental Park was later established was neither a park nor was it land, strictly speaking, at the time that Yesler’s saw mill began operation. It was swamp, later to be filled. Nonetheless, it supported camps of homeless people along its banks, including local Duwamish people displaced by Seattle’s growth.

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