Dec 9, 2002
With the first really bitter cold days of winter came the inevitable announcements: two homeless people died on the streets of Detroit overnight from hypothermia. In other words, they froze to death. The homeless shelters, which are supposed to offer protection in the event of such cold, were filled to overflowing, turning people away. On the night that two people died, shelter officials reported that not a single shelter had even one unoccupied space.
Similar reports came from other cities and towns hit by the cold wave. In New York City, 37,000 people are to be found in the homeless shelters on an ordinary night. When the cold hit, tens of thousands more were trying to crowd in; those who didn't make it huddled in doorways and over steam grates or tried to hide in the subways. And in Los Angeles, where the homeless escaped the bitter zero degree weather, they nonetheless faced a new police chief bent on making a name for himself by sending his police out to roust anyone living on the streets.
Commenting on the deaths in Detroit, the head of one of the shelters blamed the problem on what she called the "softening" economy – in other words, with heavier unemployment, fewer people are giving to the charities that run the shelters, even while there's more of a need for them.
What a disgusting comment on this society. Even while the wealthiest people accumulate still more wealth, their corporations are tossing people out of a job and – literally, in many cases – into the streets. Or they are simply cutting wages to the point that many people can't meet their housing payment. Add to this, rapidly increasing rent and housing payments, produced by speculation in real estate, and you have the recipe for a real catastrophe. Today, the majority of homeless people are people WITH JOBS, but not enough income to be able to cover housing payments.
This capitalist society, which requires unemployment and reduced wages as the condition for turning a good-sized profit, takes no real responsibility for alleviating homelessness – don't even talk about getting rid of it. As far as the capitalists are concerned, homelessness has nothing to do with them. If this society were to relieve homelessness, it would cut into their profits.
So, instead, we have the spectacle of "charity." Even if all the people who run homeless shelters were well-meaning – and some certainly are not – the fact is that they do not have the means to assure what the homeless need. When the last bed is filled, they must turn people away. When the last bowl of soup is served, they can only shut the door. And, as everyone knows, charity is demeaning.
Homelessness is not an accident, nor is it the result of bad planning by the homeless. Homelessness, like unemployment from which it springs, is a necessary product of capitalist society. The mass of the population is deprived to greater or lesser extent of the necessities for a decent life as a consequence of capitalism's drive for profit.
Today, the capitalists all explain that they must "restructure," become more "cost effective." That is, they intend to throw still more people out into the street. With every capitalist trying to do the same, the ranks of the unemployed – and the homeless – will only grow. Even when we have a job, one that pays well and we are situated in our own home, most of us are still only a long stretch or two of unemployment away from finding ourselves in the streets.
We cannot protect ourselves from this scourge individually, trying to put aside enough money to tide ourselves over.
But the day is approaching when the working class will begin to struggle again as a class, against those problems that threaten us all: unemployment, reduced wages, lack of medical care, etc. It is through such struggles that the worst results of capitalism such as homelessness can be overcome; at the same time, it is through such struggles that the working class can begin to fundamentally refashion this whole social order.