The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Freezing to death in a cold system

Feb 3, 2003

On January 23, a homeless man named Larry Andrews was found frozen to death in an alley in Detroit. Andrews had constructed a makeshift shanty out of cardboard and blankets to protect himself against freezing weather. Detroit was in the middle of a three-week frigid period in which the high temperatures never reached above freezing, and many nights were near zero. The temperature on the day Larry Andrews froze to death never got above 20 degrees.

This was only the latest in a series of deaths from the cold in Detroit and other northern cities. After Andrews' death, the media reported that homeless shelters and warming centers are filled to overcapacity and have had to turn people away.

It's an outrage that this society, with all its wealth, can't even provide a place for homeless people to go so they don't freeze to death. But warming centers and charity are only bandages on what is an open, gaping wound.

Homelessness is a social problem resulting from the way this society functions. There are estimated to be over 6,000 homeless people in the Detroit area. Certainly, many of the homeless have mental health problems. That, in itself, shouldn't lead to homelessness. But in Michigan, 10 out of 15 state psychiatric hospitals have been closed during the last decade. Another one, Northville Psychiatric Hospital is slated for closing in July.

Some of the mentally ill thrown out when hospitals closed wound up in prison. The number of new state prison inmates in Michigan reporting past mental health care rose from about 6,200 in 1990 to almost 12,000 in 2002. Many others wind up on the streets, when they can't really take care of themselves and have no family to provide care. They are simply waiting to be victimized.

But that's only part of the problem. Over the last thirty years we have seen a lowering of wages for working people at the same time that the cost of living has increased. This can only mean that some people lose their homes and have no money to afford new living arrangements – even while working and even more if someone loses a job. Today we see whole families living on the street, even when someone in the family is still working.

This is the other side of the picture of a country in which great wealth is accumulated in the hands of a few people at the very top.

It's outrageous to have people living in cardboard shanties in a society of such great wealth! A rationally organized society, if it used this wealth to address social problems, could provide jobs for its people. It could make treatment available for those with mental illness. And it could provide housing to everyone who needs it.

This capitalist society doesn't do that.