Sunday, June 12, 2022

What India Can Teach Us About Homelessness

by Cecile Pineda

(Fact checking by Srinivas Reddy)


I arrived in India in 1988 after a 16-hour flight, my body so allergic to aniline dye, it had broken out in hives. I was met at 2 AM by a turbaned taxist who attempted to take me to my “hotel.” 


I was not too tired, and my body not too riddled with hives that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. We must have travelled many miles on the approach to Bombay proper. They were all  lined with shanty towns, “towns”  people had cobbled together from corrugated roofing plastic, corrugated cardboard, and wooden planks that had seen much better wear. I asked my taxist about them.


Welcome to India


My taxist replied that they were bull dosed at regular intervals, turned to dust essentially, although the people living there had nowhere  left to go. Within less than a day, my well-meaning taxist assured me, they would be rebuilt and life there would go on.


By now it was close to 3 AM. My “hotel”  (which turned out to be something of a flop house although the people there would take good care of me, as my friend Pearl, an actress with the Bombay Talkies, would assure me) was off Ashoke Kumar in a little side street which for one block only had been whimsically named Jump Rope Walk. After multiple tries not finding it, my taxist took me to the middle class hotel district where at that hour every doorman was sleeping on the threshold and didn’t want to be disturbed. We  tried several threshold-sleeping doormen before I began wondering why I let myself be pushed about by this upstart taxist of 25. “Take me to the Taj,” I said. Replied he, ”you can’t afford the Taj.”  I summoned my most persuasive tone, “take me to the Taj, there’s eight rupees in it for you.”


Although by then it was approaching 4 AM, at the Taj I knew there’d be a telephone. I phoned. “Oh, Madam, we have been waiting for you. Just lift the corrugated iron door,” and the voice described how Jump Rope Walk was to be found. “It’s just off Ashoke Kumar.”  


When I lifted that impossibly heavy door, I found a dhoti- clad boy waiting for me. The foyer was  without light of any kind but he didn’t seem to care.  He disdained carrying my bags so, flashlight held securely in my mouth, we started the ascent of what turned out to be seven floors of factories before reaching the “hotel.” On the first riser, I felt the stair move. Someone was sleeping there. The “rent” was one ana a night. Each sleeping person had paid one ana to sleep on those stairs, all seven flights, every single riser occupied.


While I waited for USIA to make ready to have me read from my newly Viking-published novel, Frieze, I made the short trip to Aurangabad (site of the Buddhist Ajanta caves, and the Hindu Ellora Caves). There was only one train, and it left late at night.  Arrived on the platform, I had to step  over hundreds  if not thousands of sleeping bodies wrapped in burlap all huddled together as I imagine a Middle Passage tight-pack to have been.



The “Golden” Age of The Maharajas


Even before the Age of the Maharajahs, the 9th century Cholas of South India would think nothing of gifting a human being who happened to be a skilled stone carver to the Sanjaya dynast to decorate his harem in what is now known as Java.  Frieze, my second published novel, chronicles the story of one such carver. 


 Regional Aristocractic Palaces Lining Holy River Ganga

By the Age of the Maharajas (17th century to the end of the Raj in 1947) with the collusion of the British and Dutch East India Company, stealing from the common people had become predictably routine. Maharajas made war against other Maharajahs for territorial gains, kept entire stables just for housing war elephants, erected forts, temples and palaces, harems for wives and concubines, sometimes as many as 1000 (according to rumor they kept them all satisfied, each and every one) and established foundations to benefit widows and orphans. 


Jantar Mantar Staircases in Jaipur

In the 18th century Rajput King Sawal Jai Singh even built the Jantar Mantar, an observatory located in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur. Some Maharajas built multiple royal cities. Akbar built Agra Fort and the royal city of Fatepur Sikri 


Inner Courtyard of Fatepur Sikri

based on a saint’s guarantee that he would sire a  desired male heir. 


Inner Coridor at Fatepur Sikri

The city would run out of water ten years later, but it was Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, who took his erection complex to a whole new level, but building the Taj beggared his treasury so Aurangzeb, s]shah Jahan son after declaring his father incompetent, had him imprisoned in Agra Fort. He made sure there would be no more erection complex as long as his father lived. On a clear day Shah Jahan could still admire the Taj from its distant view across the Yamuna River till eight years later when he died.


Paddeling along the Yamuma at dawn

By the 19th century India had sunk into a state of gothic decay. When the Maharajah of Bangalore built his palace, its walls were studded with precious stones and in vile Trumpian style, he had it fitted it with solid gold furniture.


In cahoots with the British, all the wealth the Maharajas managed to accumulate they did by stealing from the common people. Which is why after 300 years of stealing, you feel stairs that move in the dark, you step over people wrapped in burlap sleeping in tight-pack formation along railway station platforms, and you see miles and miles of cobbled together shanty towns piling up along the highways in all of India’s big cities, of which Bombay is but one example.


What Three Hundred Years of Stealing from the American Taxpayer by a Congress Held Captive by the Pentagon Will Look Like


The Pentagon is not interested in building temples or palaces, some in far better taste than Bangalore’s. It isn’t interested in founding institutions to benefit all the widows and orphans it immiserates throughout the world. It’s only interested in more silos from which to launch intercontinental missiles, more bunker busters, more supersonic bombers, more drones, more trident-armed nuclear submarines, more tanks, more weapons of mass destruction, more nuclear bombs, more ordnance to use to contaminate Basra, Fallujah and other areas with nuclear dust in its covert nuclear wars.


Which is why people stateside still wait for state-subsidized child care, why people have yet to see the dawn of state-subsidized Medicare-for-All, why the rights of women to make their own decisions about the use of contraception and abortion is still being contested (where else would the Pentagon get the cannon fodder manpower for operating all that military hardware), why people are forced to live in tents all along the highways and railway rights of way of the world’s Number One nation, why incarcerated people are forced to work for slave wages for major corporations (Victoria’s Secrets, Aunt Jemima, Tampax Tampons, Crest Toothpaste, and Angel Soft Toilet Paper to name but a few of hundreds) and what in true slave patrol style, mostly Black, Brown, Asian and trans people are routinely sacrificed by municipal police trained in Israel.


Just imagine what 300 more years of stealing by a Congress held captive by the Pentagon might look like. But as it stands immiseration and homelessness in the U. S. of A., despite their swelling numbers, remain in their infancy.


Homelessness by the numbers

By Lisa Savage

(Lisa was chosen by Cecile as her successor blog writer.)


The United States is believed to have more than half a million people unhoused. Accurately counting people experiencing homelessness is challenging, and the most recent effort at the national level dates back to January 2020. The SARS-COV-2 pandemic that followed complicated counting, resulted in innovative shelter arrangements using vacant hotel rooms, and may have lowered the actual number unhoused in part due to a moratorium on evictions, increased unemployment compensation, and limited cash subsidies.


“Over a period lasting more than a decade, the nation has not made any real progress in reducing the number of Americans at risk of homelessness.”

State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition


But it’s likely that the dip in total numbers unhoused was temporary. Evictions and foreclosures resumed and cash subsidies dried up under the Biden administration, and medical debt in the absence of universal health care continues as the leading cause of default on homeowner mortgages. Housing costs, both rent and purchase prices, are now skyrocketing, pricing people out of housing they have relied upon for years. As of March 2020 home prices in the U.S. had risen 21% over the previous year.



“A clear question is whether or not it should take a public health emergency to galvanise governments and support systems into making an intense effort to end street homelessness.”

Homelessness and the pandemic (March 2022)


Now that inflation is galloping while wages fail to keep up, we can expect even more people will be unable to obtain housing they can afford in the coming years.


Who can afford housing?


The uber wealthy and those who serve them in government seem to have no difficulty supporting several mansions in different locations.


Obama's $12 million Home on Martha’s Vineyard


The increase in net worth of the 1% has skyrocketed during the pandemic.


“As the U.S. crosses the grim milestone of 1 million deaths from Covid-19, U.S. billionaires have seen their combined wealth rise over $1.7 trillion, a gain of over 58 percent during the pandemic.” (May 2022)


And specifically the war in Ukraine has proven highly profitable for big weapons manufacturers, with most posting record profits. This should surprise no one paying attention to their having been called to the White House for a classified planning session and the U.S. sending roughly $53 billion of U.S. public funds for “aid” to Ukraine, i.e. mostly weapon systems.


Meanwhile President Biden tweets every day that the U.S. economy has never been better (and is ratioed daily on Twitter for these absurd claims).


Most of us have anecdotal experience of the burgeoning tents and encampments of people who are unhoused  in cities across the nation. From Oakland, California to Portland, Maine those who work with the unhoused say their numbers are increasing rapidly.


Much has been made of Russian oligarchs and, particularly, their yachts. What of U.S. oligarchs? Senator Joe Manchin has a houseboat so lavish it might reasonably be considered a home, and it’s hard to determine how many other mansions Manchin owns.


Will the oligarchs of the U.S. go the way of the Maharajas of India? Stay tuned.


Housing the Houseless

by Mimi German

(I first met Mimi at an anti-nuclear conference in San Lius Obispo, the site of the Diablo Canyon NPP bordering the Pacific. Her recently published chapbook, Beneath the Gavel Weight of Stars,
is dedicated to restoring dignity to the persons she helps on the steet.)


As a volunteer advocate for unhoused people and a co-founder of Jason Barns Landing, a transitional community for unhoused people,  I think we can help the “homeless  two ways: first, house people, second love more.


We know that we can house people if we choose to house people. Inventory is available if you know where to look and you understand how to use money in a way that actually benefits those who are its intended population.


We can do even better by placing people “in already-built motels and existing housing, which can be quickly converted into the supported permanent housing that people need and want.” 


Many people think that building more shelters is the answer. Shelters do absolutely nothing about getting people into housing and off the streets. They are overcrowded, prey to theft, have addiction barriers, are dangerous places for women, lack support services, have rules about leavng from early morning to late at night, and open-and-close times that do not work for everyone.   


Support the Efforts of the Unhoused Instead of Disrupting or Ignoring Them

A further response is to “recognize the leadership of autonomous villages governed by people experiencing homelessness,” outreach to organized villages and camps working on their autonomous structure to facilitate toilets, dumpsters and trash hauling, food support, and medical services along with housing advocacy.  

In the recent past, we've built "tarpees" for folks to live in. Designed by Paul Paul Cheyok'ten Wagner — a member of the Saanich First Nations of Vancouver Island, an artist and inventor whom we met at Standing Rock—he has designed a contemporary teepee that costs thousands of dollars less than a traditional teepee and uses materials found in any hardware store. 


Because we deeply respected the Sioux and other First Nations people who were there, we first discussed the tarpee idea with them. We agreed that no money would ever be exchanged for the tarpees and that we would make every concerted effort to house BIPOC houseless people first. Under those conditions they agreed to let us build them where back home in Portland where I live. 


It is because the HIC makes so much money off the unhoused that we have homeless folks still living on the street. It’s cheaper to let the unhoused live in the street and simply pay for emergency room visits when people get sick.


In Portland, Rapid Response is the largest contractor  conducting "sweeps" within the city. It employs people who have just been released from the Prison Industrial Complex to do the dirty work of "sweeping" people and stealing their meager belongings. But without the  existence of the unhoused, the "sweeps" companies would be out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Houseless Industrial Complex (HIC) needs to be stomped and booted from having anything to do with the homeless. 


The Joint Office of Houseless Services (JOHS), the parnership pairing the County and City ‘efforts’ to house people makes billions of dollars to make sure houseless people continue to be homeless instead of housing them. It exists only if houseless people exist

Mitigation starts with love and a true understanding of what is needed by unhoused people. How do we get to that understanding? By listening to the people who are in need of housing. We can house everyone over a relatively short period of time. From there, we can bring in the support needed. We need transitional housing that leads directly to permanent housing. The steps are clear. The money is there and has been voted on, at least in Portland, Oregon where I live. We can move forward with the 3000 Challenge or just follow its guidelines. Or we can do nothing and perpetuate the inhumanity of local and State governments across the U.S. Which is it going to be? I choose housing. I choose love.

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