Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tent City

Harpers has got a really good, but ultimately hopeless-feeling, story by William T. Vollman about the homeless situation in Sacramento -- which has once again burbled to the surface as local, state and federal budget cuts ensure that more and more people wind up living as best they can on the streets, in camps and whatever corners of creation they can find and hold before they are rousted by Authority.

The striking thing about the story, though it shouldn't be striking at all, is the extraordinary humanity of so many of those on the streets, a humanity that shines through all the suffering and puts the lie to the constant carping and denunciations of the chattering classes and the Better People who aren't -- yet -- forced to drag their few pitiful things from place to place ahead of the cops, or see them confiscated and burned if they don't get away fast enough.

There are all kinds of homeless programs in Sacramento and elsewhere, of course, and they all operate as little independent fiefs, jealous and territorial as shit, and none of them doing more than a fraction of what's necessary to aid and comfort the dispossessed and undisciplined. It's a crying shame, and it has been this way for decades, so long in fact that few have any idea any more that there could be a better way of... helping.

The author, for example, describes a parking lot he owns in the Alkali Flat area that was being frequented by homeless people, some of whom camped on his lot, some of whom left trash and more personal offal and debris in front of his door -- expensive to clean up -- and given the situation, he wondered if it wouldn't be better (though it would no doubt be illegal) for him to install a port-a-potty on the lot for use by its temporary residents. Would it "help" or would it actually make things worse -- for the author and the homeless who might relieve themselves in private...

These kinds of moral dilemmas seem bizarre in the extreme, as mad in their own ways as so many of the homeless wanderers on the streets. You do what needs to be done to the extent you are able.

And that's where Safe Ground comes in. They are a competing operation for the homeless with a goal of providing some kind of safe place to accommodate those on the streets and their pets, their goods, and their chattel, and to the extent possible, to provide them with transitional housing and social services so that those who are able can get off the streets once and for all.

They do what needs to be done, and what they do is fought by the Establishment -- both the homeless services establishment and the more generalized Establishment day in and day out.

It is a continuing "controversy." No doubt it will be discussed and argued for many years to come, for that is how things go in the "services" realm. Endless debate, endless foot dragging. And endlessly doing as little as possible -- for as much money as possible -- for those left behind in our country's mad rush into the Social Darwinistic Future.

Safe Ground appears to be trying to break that cycle, trying to make a real difference, by offering Dignity to the homeless they serve. They have provided the opportunity for several self-governing, self-policing, self-defending homeless communities to arise in the area (some in areas where such things are not welcome like the American River Parkway) which have begun to show the way out of the morass of endless homelessness and homeless servicing. And for that, they are pilloried, harassed, driven from place to place.

The time will come, however. The time will come.

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