Yves here. Although the current spell of nasty cold weather isn’t unusual by the standards of three decades ago, in the intervening years we’ve also had a big increase in homelessness, which means a lot more people are at risk of freezing to death.
This Real News Network stresses that the rise in homelessness is the direct result of the reduction of funding of affordable housing since the Carter Administration. And stagnant wages plus the lousy job market since the financial crisis also means more people are living on the streets or in their cars. A third culprit that is operative in Manhattan and I assume other major cities is the near-complete disappearance of single-room-occupancy housing which has been converted to other uses. These weren’t just a mainstay for men in low-wage jobs or getting by on Social Security; it also provided a stopgap for people who had emergencies.
As for homeless shelters, the intermittent press accounts indicate that most people avoid them; they are considered unsafe (the few goods you have on your person may be stolen) and the hours are very restricted (certain check in and lights out/wake up times).
This post, with a report from a woman who had been in and out of shelters, gives a flavor of the conditions. Some extracts:
In my late fifties, with no prospect of reemployment, I recently had my first experiences with two of these.
I’ve worked all my life and been my only support all my life. It was my preference to do this, rather than derive any part of my upkeep from the wages of the person I slept with. My “crime” was doing this while female. Since sex discrimination has become legal again, I was forced out of a profession that’s been redefined as historically male, and have not been hired for female entry level positions due to my age and “overqualified” background.
I did everything I could, including backpacking into legal sites in the state parks in the mountains here, to keep from going into a shelter, but in the end could not even afford the gas to drive the fifteen or so miles round trip to the park from where any prospect of work existed. (“Obamaville” tent villages are not possible the way Hoovervilles were – the times are so much more pitiless that almost every city has ordinances against such places, and where they’re allowed, they’re controlled to the point of being worse than the shelters. The infamous “tent in the woods” near any urban area is out of the question for a woman unless she attaches herself to a homeless male for protection).
The shelter itself was physically considered to be one of the best in the state. It administers most of the charitable and many of the government resources for five counties. It is new, the fixtures are more than adequate and the meals are very good. A major problem was precisely the punitive “poor house” attitude: the Calvinistic view the women who administered the shelter had towards those who needed its services….. Residents must line up to take a breathalyser test in the common area when coming in in the late afternoon, everyone must be inside the shelter by 6:00 p.m., no one is allowed out after that time without written permission, and everyone is locked out of their rooms at 8:00 a.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. on weekends. Women’s rooms had four permanent beds and lockers, but usually had two more folding beds crammed into the walkway at the foot of the beds. The men’s rooms were larger but had eight residents…
Residents were required to work on a “plan” towards permanent housing with one of the administrators. Such “plans” necessarily required a job. These women reproduced the sexism of the larger society: in addition to there being more beds for men than for women, living conditions were kept as much as possible from interfering with any man’s job who has one. Their “plans” for men were much more realistic as well, in that the men had more of a chance of finding work, even when they had, as the majority there did, a prison record. Their “plans” for women pretty much amounted to: you screwed up by not selecting a good enough (or any) husband, any job is better than no job at all, no matter how ill paid, discriminatory or demeaning, and your stay limit without a job is 30 days. Their ranking for women was below men in services, respect and resources and within that ranking, women with children came first and women without children were at the very bottom.
Her embittered tone results in part from the fact that she found a night shift job on her own which she then lost because she was unable to sleep (short version is that the staff would accommodate men with night shift jobs but not women). Back to her report:
Women with dangerous mental problems were also put into the regular woman’s dorm. One had kept the other women in the room terrorized before I stayed there. She also kept them up all night because she alone was allowed to sleep there during the day (due to her mental illness!), while they had to be up and out on the streets or at their jobs, as one resident was, by eight. She had been committed before for cutting up residents’ clothes with a knife; she was recommitted again just after I got there.
The official policy towards aggression and threats among residents was zero tolerance. The actual policy was to let the rats eat the other rats and to shoot the ones that came running to the administrators. The administrators had their favorites, usually those that made the class divide most evident, and the less well off and less educated paid staff did as well, usually those most expert at currying favor and those with whom they identified. The atmosphere resembled a combination between what I imagine prison must be and the type of unskilled job where the boss just above entry level uses his or her position more for petty gratification than anything else.
The treatment of the homeless will be a key indicator for judging whether New York’s new “liberal” mayor Bill de Blasio is “all hat, no cattle” or the real deal. My bet is on the former.