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Serve the People

Homelessness isn’t an accident. It’s the result of a brutal economic system and conscious state policy.

Garry Knight / Flickr

If Jesus of Nazareth ever returns to the earthly realm, he would be advised not to make his debut in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The police would likely cuff him.

Arnold Abbott, age ninety, has made international headlines for being arrested multiple times for organizing feedings of the homeless in public spaces in his hometown, famous for its retirement community and spring break party-goers. The town’s mayor, Jack Seiler, believes the threat of fines and a four-month jail sentence for the elderly churchman is appropriate, telling reporters that Abbott “has decided that he doesn’t think these individuals should have to have any interaction with government, that they should be fed in the parks. We disagree.”

Beyond the David and Goliath nature of the affair, the absurdities of such an injunction abound. Is it not a clear First Amendment freedom for people to convene? Can a state claiming to be democratic really prevent such acts of charity? And how does the state decide who’s homeless anyway? For example, would a couch-surfer be considered without shelter and thus, under this grotesque logic, a public safety risk?

While it might be easy to dismiss this as one more strange occurrence in the Sunshine State, Florida is hardly a callous outlier. Around the country, municipalities have deployed a variety of methods and statutes to harass and criminalize those lacking shelter: banning panhandling, instating “quality of life” ordinances, confiscating personal property, playing booming construction sounds as a deterrent, and even killing a man for camping in the desert.

The goal, of course, is to push the unseemly to the periphery, rather than solve the underlying problem. And the problem is indeed dire: homelessness is on the rise nationally.

A staggering 50,000 people are now without a home in New York City. Homelessness in Washington DC is expected to rise 16 percent this winter. And in Massachusetts, it has spiked 40 percent since 2007. (One surprising exception is Utah, where a Republican administration began simply providing housing to those without shelter.) For the most part, the number of shelterless people increase when rich people populate areas, their wealth displacing renters who eventually can’t rent anywhere.

The situation in Florida has been nothing if not clarifying. It illustrates how immiseration is produced not by accidental market mechanisms, but by cold and precise state policy. Austerity is not a triumph of market values over so-called big government. It is a redirection of state resources away from services for people in need to forces working against them. Food stamps are cut, but federal grants to police departments keep flowing.

Leftists often shy away from charity on the grounds that it is a temporary reprieve from the suffering caused by structural inequality, a waste of time and energy that would be better suited organizing to make society more just and equal. Charity can also introduce relationships of subordination: rather than asserting their right to housing and food, the marginalized must accept help from above.

The austerity assault on charity is, however, a reminder that it can be a subversive act. It alleviates the suffering of those on the losing end of capitalism, cheating the “natural order” of Social Darwinism. It can also strengthen the bonds between activists and those seeking justice. Charity, then, can be a channel toward organizing against the policies that ensure inequality. That’s why it’s so potentially dangerous.

In fact, this is what animated certain portions of Occupy Wall Street, especially during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. While some people viewed the relief work as piecemeal service providing, the ideology centered on the concept of providing help when the normal state channels fell short.

One of the aims, of course, was to create new types of solidarity, an opportunity for a mostly white movement to join in common cause with low-income communities of color. But another was more in line with the vision of radical socialist organizing — using charity to show the way in which the state’s priorities are warped in favor of the elite.

Abbott, in a sense, is exposing a state that will more quickly use violence against a charity worker than actually address the system that creates homelessness. And the news out of Ft. Lauderdale is not a isolated incident. As National Public Radio reported, such anti-charity laws are only becoming more prevalent. More charity workers getting arrested for violating such laws won’t just say to the world that capitalism has created a crisis of homelessness, but that such suffering is carefully and strongly imposed on the public by a government that serves the powerful.

It is in this way that charity can take on a transformative cast — not simply placating, but crystallizing and radicalizing. Fighting anti-homelessness ordinances and doling out charity won’t do. We must organize to end homelessness and hunger itself.