That was the general sentiment of the people who showed up to protest a new homeless shelter in the community where I live. They might as well have put a sign out that read, Poor People Keep Out.
It was so disheartening and sad for me to hear what privileged white people believe about people who do not have homes.
I do not own a home, either. Is this what they think of me? Is my value as a human being solely based on how much money I make and whether I own a home?
A Classist Mindset
It was also shocking to hear how free people feel to express classist views. I would like to think that people would be a little more careful in what they say even if they think classist thoughts. But no one seemed concerned with sounding classist at all. This classist mindset (others/the poor) is a huge barrier to organizing around economic and social justice.
I have no idea how to go about changing the narrative so people with class privilege understand that what they have been taught about social mobility is a lie. This attitude exists not only with local residents but also in the mindset of people who work in systems that are supposed to “help.”
I have seen professionals from local social service agencies/community mental health give people without homes who have mental illness a one-way bus ticket out of this town, as in “we don’t want them in our town.”
I have seen community mental health employees pass out $25.00 tents to people with severe mental illness in lieu of real housing and, yet, sit on the human rights committee.
As I dissected the comments that were made during the public hearing, I could not help but think that the comments illustrate an outrageously overt classist mindset. They also remind me that this narrative ultimately serves the power elite, not the rest of us.
[gdlr_quote align=”center” ]It was shocking to hear how free people feel to express classist views [about homelessness].”[/gdlr_quote]
Classist Narratives: We Are Not Heartless.
We just don’t want them in our neighborhood.
Every single person speaking against the shelter was white, and most kept emphasizing that they were homeowners, taxpayers and business owners. They seemed to share the belief that people who are homeless are eyesores, bad for business, bad for tourism and just plain dangerous “lurking” in the community.
There was no awareness of the growing economic inequality happening in the country, no mention of low wages, and no mention of high-priced housing and no discussion about the ways in which oppression can cause health issues both mental and physical.
There was also no mention of the lack of support services in place for people who are without a home. There was no mention about how classism is internalized and then plays out in real life. No one seemed to pause for a moment to consider what it would feel like to be homeless and to listen to this level of hate and ostracism. Some stated, for the record, that they were not heartless. “We just don’t want them in our neighborhood.”
Many of the speakers were local business owners who I can bet do not pay their employees a living wage even though they themselves live in big homes and have a good quality of life for now. As one example, I heard one person who spoke at the meeting say, in another context, that she did not want to pay people a living wage because, “I like a hungry employee, a hungry employee will work harder because they are hungry.” This person identifies as a liberal feminist.
They don’t pay taxes like us.
One man said, “I own property and I don’t support the creation of the new homeless shelter…There are other opportunities for homeless people. A shelter of this size is going to cause real problems in the community. Your job is to support the taxpayers; I have been paying taxes my whole life.” This seemed to be the general sentiment.
Homeless people will flock here.
Someone said, “The homeless shelter encourages homeless expansion. If you build 200 beds, 200 will be filled up.”
It is not safe when people without homes are in the neighborhood.
“The residents feel anxious stepping outside as they want to feel they live in safety,” one person said.
Then a young mom stood up with a small baby in her arms. “I am raising my daughters here, and I have always been grateful for a safe spot here.
“I have witnessed my mother get out of her car and put a coat on a homeless person, and I have given numerous coffees for homeless people. I am not hateful, I am intellectual. (But—‘they’ don’t belong in our neighborhood.)”
“I am in the beautiful historic residential neighborhood, I am a taxpayer. I have been doing research on the homeless, and when you read headlines like homeless man murders another homeless man under the bridge, homeless man convicted of rape, homeless man was a pedophile, homeless person breaking and entering… And homeless people are 30 percent of all calls to the fire department. That is why business and residents are not in favor of this.”
“For 26 years we have been doing business here, business people don’t support the homeless shelter, I have been paying taxes for 20 years….90 homeless individuals getting out at 8 a.m., that is not good for the community. What about my health, my safety, my well-being? They are going to loiter; they can’t just leave the area, as they have nowhere to go. I am a tax-paying individual. I feel you are heartless by pushing the idea of the shelter.”
If you feed “them,” they will come. And having a homeless shelter creates a homeless lifestyle.”
“Now there are going to be 100 people or so crossing the street each day on foot to go to the church to eat,” added a speaker.
The Homeless are a liability, and they all have mental illness and drug problems
Other comments included:
“I am the owner of … putting 100 people with various mental problems under one roof is a dangerous situation and a huge liability for our neighborhood … let’s help the taxpayers enjoy a good quality of life. “
“Putting a 90 bed or a 100 bed to place all those people with serious problems into one spot within the city is a problem. We already have two drug rehabilitation places. I don’t hate the homeless and I am not a hatemonger.”
“70-75% of the homeless have schizophrenia. That is why they wind up in a difficult life….you put 90 people with a 75% chance of schizophrenia under the same roof, you are going to have a headache that you never ever dreamt of. This is going to cause a lot of problems; the city is going to have a huge liability.”
The homeless bring down property values.
“We own four condos. We are trying to sell two of them, but once potential buyers find out there is going to be a homeless shelter put in the neighborhood, they are gone. Last week we had a person who wanted to write an offer and then went out for dinner with people from the area and found out about the homeless shelter so they withdrew their offer. This is going to drastically hurt our property value, and we are buying (more condos) in the area with the hopes to make (the area) better, the plan is to build this area up and it is not going to be done with the homeless shelter.”
The homeless are freeloaders.
“My wife is worried about me having a heart attack. And every year you charge me more in taxes, and you want to give things away?”
Is Everyone at the Meeting Classist?
The only “solution” for homelessness proposed was getting kids involved in more team sports. “Maybe then they will not be homeless in the future if they participate in sports as a teenager.”
One woman who was in support of the shelter made the point that the shelter would prevent death by freezing in the wintertime and said that the shelter serves a very important purpose. And made the point the homeless do not have a voice in these kinds of meetings.
She also said that the chronic homeless are not easy to house and knows someone personally who has a chance to get permanent housing. However, no landlord in the city is willing to rent to him – even though he has a voucher and money to get a place.
And the only man to speak in favor of the shelter who also had been homeless, started to call the community out on their classism and ignorance about economic inequality. But he was interrupted immediately by city officials, because he was not supposed to “address the public” like that. He lost his train of thought and sat down.
The only other supporter summed it all up by saying that she was “saddened that we live in a community that cares about economics rather than humanity.”