Last year Richard Lee Cooper was struck and killed by a driver while asking for money on a median in Germantown, Maryland. The matter has been settled for the driver. If the court records are accurate, they paid a fine of a little over $700 for killing Mr. Cooper. But Councilmember Craig Rice (District 2) is looking to use the tragedy as an opportunity to further dehumanize a community viciously attacked by Capitalism.
Montgomery County has a homelessness problem. No, it’s not that in this fabulously wealthy county we still hear complaints about the quality of service at shelters. No, it’s not that people are literally freezing to death in the streets, in their cars, and in the woods. It’s that our county councilors see solutions for homelessness in poor-shaming propaganda campaigns and laws that expand the reach of the prison system. How, in a wealthy and ostensibly progressive county, did we get here?
Councilmember George Leventhal (At-Large) likes to tout his new Ph.D. degree and his thesis paper on solving homelessness. Academia may have rewarded Leventhal’s scholastic pursuits, but the actual people experiencing homelessness think his rhetoric is bunk. They told him so in a January forum on homelessness (which was conspicuously full of older, white liberals, up until an organized contingent of homeless brought the reality of the issue to those present).
Leventhal and the county government as a whole champion a paternalistic system of public-private partnerships with local charities that claim to tackle homelessness both by utilizing data analysis but also programs tailored to the individual. Those private charities received as much, if not more, scorn from the homeless at the January meeting.
Against the claim that they could both be broad in reach using data, but also personalized to individual needs, the homeless cadre cited rampant staff abuse at shelters,a lack of basic services unless one is enrolled in larger programs, police abuse and targeting of the homeless, and apathy on behalf of staffers and councilmembers alike. The cadre knew many of the panelists by name, and made sure the audience heard their grievances against them. Montgomery County may do well on the data-side of homelessness, but it comes at the cost of dehumanizing the very target of their efforts.
How did we get homelessness so wrong? As ardent materialists, we have to see the historical development behind these policies.
Since Marx, it has been understood that consistent homelessness is a direct byproduct of Capital generating a reserve army of labor. And things have only gotten worse since the writing of “Das Kapital.”
The modern assault on homelessness began in the 80s, as the capitalist counterrevolution against the gains of the New Deal reached its zenith under the destructive policies of President Reagan. The socio-economic conditions for the bottom 99% plummeted; those at the very bottom were disregarded as “choosing to be homeless.”
In Montgomery County, the trend of dehumanizing the homeless that began in the 80s arguably continued as the county began its “hand-up, not handout” poor-shaming campaign. Gaudy signs are plastered on cork boards in public libraries bemoaning the charity of handing out a few dollars to someone in need as “dangerous”.
The shelter services and home placement programs emerged in the early 2000s, and succeeded in certain areas. But as described above, the homeless community still feels under attack and underserved.
Now, Craig Rice has revived his intention to submit a bill to turn panhandling on street medians into a crime adds the prison and carceral dimension firmly back into Montgomery County’s management of the homeless.
We can assert with some confidence that Craig Rice made no attempt to hear from the homeless themselves when crafting his bill. Had he done so, they would have told him that panhandling is used to supplement travel needs, or to get a little bit of food. Much the same as how any person goes about their day in our commodified world.
Perhaps Rice is responding to constituents who, commuting on the notoriously crowded roads up-county, cite the panhandlers as an eyesore and embarrassment. Or perhaps a more common practice of realtors and landowners leveraging media exposure and political power to eradicate homeless populations from areas where they bring down property values. Whatever the rational, Rice’s bill is a premier example of rendering an already vulnerable community under attack by capitalism invisible by locking them away in prison.
Finally, readers should consider for themselves the everyday experience of the homeless:
The county has established enclaves where (a limited number) of homeless can sleep overnight. These facilities are placed a sufficient distance from residential living areas so as to not degrade property values. These facilities are run on neoliberal principles: meritocracy for those who follow archaic rules, means-testing for full services, and strict disciplinary measures for any “disturbances” by the homeless. An attitude that is deemed “disruptive” can result in being banned from Progress Place for a year or more.
Those who do not go to the shelters are blamed as “choosing” not to use the shelters. In reality we know the shelters’ archaic rules, disciplinary actions, and geographic distances impose severe constrictions on who is welcome at those locations.
The shelters only offer services at limited times. During even the coldest days, the homeless are cast back into the city. There, the only places they are at the very least tolerated are public buildings such as libraries. In those few public places are the majority of propaganda posters demonizing panhandling. “Offer a hand-up, not a hand-out,” the signs say, compelling the average person to join the county’s neoliberal project of rending the homeless invisible outside the ghettos of the homeless shelters.
And what if the shelter is at capacity? What if they are barred from a shelter, or do not receive enough bus tokens from the shelter (a common complaint)?
They go to the intersections to panhandle. Under Craig Rice’s proposed police state, they are charged with a crime and forced to pay a fine. Almost by definition, they are unable to pay the fine. They are jailed for a period of days. The prison system gobbles another life.
Against this hellish state, what are the demands of socialists?
We take our cue from the homeless themselves, who have demanded the following:
-free Ride-On services
-no police in shelter spaces
-24/7 shelter services, we can pay for it by cutting the wages of county councilors
Until these demands are met, engage with the homeless and defy laws or norms related to panhandling. Together, we must fight with the homeless for real solutions and not senseless, cruel measures crafted by opportunistic politicians for their political theater.
–Commonwealth Editorial Board