04 December 2014

The Surplus Population

by Eve Fisher

First off, Bouchercon was great. It was so good to finally meet in person fellow SleuthSayers Brian Thornton, Rob Lopresti, R. T. Lawton, and Melodie Campbell. Huzzah! I went to panels, wandered the halls, talked to all kinds of people, and I got a chance to hang out with Linda Landrigan and do a podcast for AHMM. Believe me, I'll let everyone know when that's up.

It was also interesting being back in California. I grew up there, but hadn't been back in 40 years, for a variety of reasons. Other than the fact that almost every square inch has been built up, upon, and over. Okay, the Pacific Coast Highway used to be a two-lane ribbon of road, running with a clear view of the ocean everywhere, and innumerable places where you could stop for a dip or a stroll on the beach. Now it's solid developments on both sides, at least down to Laguna Beach, and try to find beach access. [Sigh.]

But California's always been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and quirky, in everything from people to food. Surfers with dreads were around back then, too, although 40 years ago it was just called snarled. And there were homeless people everywhere then, too. It's a warm climate. You can live without much shelter, thank God. Up here in Sioux Falls, right before we flew out for Bouchercon, a 46 year old homeless woman froze to death in an outside stairwell.
      At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge… it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
      “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge… "And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” … “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
— Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

What do we do about the homeless? Well, the city of Manteca, California, passed two laws that will go in effect today, December 4th, just in time for Christmas. The first one outlaws any type of shelter that might be used by the homeless - including public porta-potties, by the way - whether they are on public OR private property, and even if the owner of said private property gave the homeless person permission to put it up and/or use it. The second ordinance outlaws any public bathroom behavior on any public or private property. And, to put the cherry on that cake, the city closed all the public restrooms. (I wonder where non-homeless people - especially small children and the elderly - are expected to go when they're downtown?) Manteca's government is very creative, by the way: in order to discourage the homeless from camping in Library Park, the city purposely changed the water sprinkler schedule so that people couldn't sleep in the park without getting wet.

Venice, California, has outlawed sleeping in RVs. In fact, 81 cities around the country have banned sleeping in cars or RVs, and enforce the laws by arresting people and confiscating their one and only major possession, the car - thus making them even more homeless than before. The Joads would never have made it to California in the first place if their old jalopy had been confiscated in, say, Arizona...

Sarasota, Florida, outlawed smoking first in a public park that was notoriously used by the homeless, then expanded it to all public parks. Fair, right? But they gave an exemption to golf courses because "golfers are so often smokers." In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they banned alcohol consumption in Van Eps and Tower Parks, where it's mostly "the wrong type" of people who are drinking (there are rooming houses all around these parks, and for those renters the park is basically their living room). Meanwhile, almost every other Sioux Falls park allows drinking. Especially in the "nice" sections of town.

In Houston, Texas, it's illegal for people to go dumpster-diving for food. (So much for freegans and Food Not Bombs.) And, of course, there was the 90 year old man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who along with two pastors was arrested for feeding the homeless (November 4, 2014), because "the provision of food to vagrants in public" has been outlawed there, along with 33 other cities in the US. Fort Lauderdale also made it illegal for homeless people to have possessions with them, and to sit or lie down on sidewalks. Sitting or lying down in public, by the way, is illegal in 70 cities.

Here's quote from a supporter of the Fort Lauderdale ban on feeding the homeless: "The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier... Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they're hungry or when they're fed and happy? Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness... Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing."

Who knew that homeless people choose the lifestyle for the food?

Look, let's be honest: homeless people are a pain in the ass. They're often dirty, smelly, crusty around the edges. They're generally not pretty. They're often mentally ill. They mutter and they wander and they stare and sometimes they beg. But above all, they're inconvenient. And they're there. Right in your face. But let's face facts: the real reason that all these laws are passed isn't because people don't want to enable them, it's because people - especially businesses - want them out of sight. And they come up with all sorts of reasons why we need to move the homeless along, away, out of town. And they always have.

Read Charles Dickens: in his books, the rich were always talking about how dangerous it is to create "dependency" among the poor, and that only the deserving poor should be helped. Of course, one of the ways to tell the deserving from the undeserving poor is that the deserving poor never want help, but only want to work hard and starve quietly. Now, remember, back in Victorian times, ALL help was private. The national government did nothing to help the poor. The local government offered only workhouses and orphanages, and no one wanted to go to either. The workhouses were literal prisons, where families were split up forever. And orphanages... well, orphans were sold out to the highest bidder as slave labor (think Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, etc.), until they were old enough to run away.

And today... we're back to Victorian times. Now I could perhaps be persuaded that it's not the government's job to take care of the poor or the homeless. Maybe. (Maybe not.) But the new crop of laws are making it illegal for one private person to hand food to another. Private charity is being made a criminal offense, city by city. Which raises the question, what happened to my right to feed the poor? Even Scrooge bought a turkey and gave it to Tiny Tim…

God help us, every one.


  1. Eve, I'd just read about Manteca. And about seizures of shopping carts.
    And about a West Virginia officer who threw a homeless man's backpack
    into the river. And about the severe beatings and shootings of the
    homeless. And about the arrest of a homeless man in south Florida for
    charging his cell phone in a public park.

    So much comes back to Florida. Orlando was one of the early adapters of
    criminalizing homelessness and feeding the homeless. You mentioned Ft.
    Lauderdale banning feeding. As a meeting to 'honor the homeless', their fat-ass mayor ordered the arrest of a homeless man who asked to speak.

    I didn't think it was possible to be further outraged or disgusted by
     elected officials, but they keep finding new lows exercising their 'Christian' duties.

    Our long-time readers know our mandate is to write about crime, and Eve's done exactly that.

  2. Who knew that homeless people choose the lifestyle for the food?

    A brilliant question, Eve. And a great post.

    Of a similar nature: I was pretty bent when -- a few years ago -- a family discovered to have been living in a storage room at some low-cost U-store-it type place in The Valley, was not only evicted, and the parents jailed for violating zoning laws (the U-store place being zoned commercially, and not for residential use), the kids were taken by the state and the parents also charged with neglect or abuse because they'd been found "living in unsuitable housing" (or similar wording). This last part was dependent on the idea that there was no running water or electricity in the store room.

    The thought that came to me was: "So, Abe Lincoln, raised without running water in that log cabin of his childhood, I suppose -- he was a victim of neglect and abuse by his parents. Right? Because they couldn't find a better place to live?"

  3. Eve, local government here fights all the time about homeless shelters--when and where to put them, but they do acknowledge that the homeless need help.
    When my grandson was pre-school age, I was "Grandmama Daycare," and he stayed with me while his dad worked. As part of a community project, every Wednesday, he and I made a hundred sandwiches that were picked up by the coordinator of "Feed the Homeless." The idea was that if many different people provided food one day a week, the program could give out food every day. The sandwiches I made were on wheat bread with mayo, cheese, bologna, and mustard. '
    One day I took him shopping with me and then to lunch. When the server came for our order, my grandson asked for "a homeless sandwich." He still likes bologna and cheese on wheat, and he still works with charities.
    I realize that your column is very serious, but to read a good mystery with several homeless protagonists, read Sue Grafton's W IS FOR WASTED.

  4. I'd afraid that selfishness, like the poor, will be with us always.

  5. They say a civilization will be judged by how they treated their most vulnerable.
    We must - everywhere - strive to do better.

  6. Good points, Dixon and Melodie, and bless you, Fran.

  7. Good news!

    A judge has temporarily suspended Fort Lauderdale's ban on feeding the homeless.

    Although 90yo Arnold Abbott was booked and fingerprinted, local radio reports FtL's mayor Fat Jack Seiler claims Abbott wasn't truly 'arrested' because he didn't actually spend a night in jail. Yet.

  8. That is good news, Leigh!
    Thank you for all your comments: Fran, thank you for doing what you did, and I will check out "W is for Wasted". Amen, Melodie.
    Dixon, that story is exactly the type of thing that ticks me off to no end. I remember Sam Levinson, the comedian, who once said that he was raised as one of the "privileged poor" - he had family and honor, and the fact that they lived in a 5th floor cold water flat was irrelevant. Not any more.

  9. Eve, here in the Springs, the city outlawed homeless camps and cleaned out the piles of trash and garbage left on the ground. As a possible solution to the homeless problem, they then made arrangements with several low end motels to put up the homeless on special grant funds. At least the city council is trying to find a balance. Naturally, the highly independent and/or the mentally challenged merely moved further back into the tree line and mostly out of sight. Some you can help, others don't want help.
    The Springs also has programs to set up homeless families and single persons in private living conditions with a job to get them going until they can support themselves, but I don't know how many people can take advantage of this program at a time.
    Panhandling is against the law in the downtown area, but not in the rest of the city. Unfortunately, a few well-off beggars have been followed back to their Mercedes or upscale houses after their panhandling or else they were cocky enough to brag to news reporters about making $50,00 or more a year from begging on mall corners and/or highway ramps. The resulting publicity then causes all beggars to fall under suspicion.
    Like you, I've seen the curb-sitters drinking out of paper sack covered bottles in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. They are their own worst image in the public's perception of the homeless.
    Hopefully, some one will be able to find a workable solution to our nation's homeless problems.

  10. Look, let's be honest: homeless people are a pain in the ass. They're often dirty, smelly, crusty around the edges. They're generally not pretty. They're often mentally ill. They mutter and they wander and they stare and sometimes they beg. But above all, they're inconvenient. And they're there. Right in your face. But let's face facts: the real reason that all these laws are passed isn't because people don't want to enable them, it's because people - especially businesses - want them out of sight. And they come up with all sorts of reasons why we need to move the homeless along, away, out of town. And they always have.

    Eve, you nailed it in this paragraph. Great post.

  11. As this top-heavy economy sucks the life out of the indigent classes, where else can they go when kicking them to the curb isn't enough?

  12. I wrote a story on this subject which may be of interest.


  13. Here in Knoxville, the politicians are trying to figure out what to do with the homeless. Mainly, they talk about where to build more and safer shelters. No one has yet mentioned the bad solutions you describe in your post. I don’t know if the pols are more enlightened or if it is the influence of the pastors of several churches, but homelessness hasn’t been outlawed in the city or county yet.

  14. Herschel, that is one touching story.

  15. You said what needed to be said and I'm glad you and your colleagues have the fortitude to speak up. Thank you.

  16. That's a true story, Herschel. Thanks for posting it.

  17. G.M. Ford wrote a series of novels about Seattle PI Leo Waterman whose "staff" was homeless people. He realized that they were the perfect observers because NO ONE EVER NOTICED THEM.


    "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread." - Anatole France

  18. What a tragically apropos quote from Anatole France!

  19. Dallas settles with charities they tried to shut down: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/12/11/3602218/dallas-homeless-feeding-resolution/


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