Monday, October 31, 2011

Illegally Homeless

There are always discussions (arguments?) about what a post-apocalyptic world would look like.  Granted a lot would depend on what scenario you believe will bring our current world order to an end.

But one of the more popular scenarios since at least the 1990s is an economic collapse.  It is the scenarios used in the very popular recent books by Rawles.  It appears to have been popularized in militia-survivalist circles by Mel Tappan, but was also commented in more mainstream circles by the late Larry Burkett who was a heavy influence of Dave Ramsey.

Since my preference is to look to see if we have current or historical information on a subject, rather than speculative scenario spinning.  An obvious analogy to what would happen when people have lost everything is to look at people who have lost everything already:  mainly the homeless.

While that would seem to be an excellent source for comparison, the only two fictional settings that I am aware of using this information is Nova’s American Apocalypse series, of which Gardener Summer was by far the best, although the first book in the series probably covered the most information on the homeless. Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse also started with some interesting observations on how the homeless/vagabonds are treated.  Both series did not stay with the theme for very long.

One of the problems with the modern homeless is that while some of them are refugees from a former life of greater affluence, most of those people find alternative places to stay.  They are tucked away in friends or relatives basements, or possibly even a little trailer in the back yard.  But they are not the visible homeless.

Most of the visible homeless are of a different nature.

Tales of Tent City
Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation, 3 June 2009

The Sacramento Bee first reported on the newest Tent City in December. Oprah Winfrey sent a correspondent in February. After that, said Tent City resident Danny Valadez, "It went like a cyclone," buzzing with journalists and new arrivals. Most reporters focused exclusively on the few Tent City residents whose predicaments could be linked directly to the economic collapse. "They were all looking for Henry Fonda [in The Grapes of Wrath]," laughs Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.

Anyone who has spent time with the long-term homeless knows that they are not the benighted Henry Fonda.  Of course, most of us are not either, but we like to kid ourselves that that is more like we would be.

Well the Occupy people have come along and done us a favor.  Granted their politics may not be our politics, but they are drawn from the blue collar and middle class for the most part.  Some of the problems they see in their temporarily unsheltered situation, are similar to what people might experience in an economic collapse.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Tomgram, 23 October 2011 (hat tip: NC)

As anyone knows who has ever had to set up a military encampment or build a village from the ground up, occupations pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed; medical care and rudimentary security provided -- to which ends a dozen or more committees may toil night and day. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else, including job loss, the destruction of the middle class, and the reign of the 1%. And that is the single question: Where am I going to pee?...

Of course, political protesters do not face the challenges of urban camping alone. Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarp, and relieve themselves without committing a crime. Public restrooms are sparse in American cities -- "as if the need to go to the bathroom does not exist," travel expert Arthur Frommer once observed. And yet to yield to bladder pressure is to risk arrest.

What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary, biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets -- not just peeing, but sitting, lying down, and sleeping. While the laws vary from city to city, one of the harshest is in Sarasota, Florida, which passed an ordinance in 2005 that makes it illegal to “engage in digging or earth-breaking activities” -- that is, to build a latrine -- cook, make a fire, or be asleep and “when awakened state that he or she has no other place to live.”

I actually worked occasionally in Manhattan a number of years ago, and let me assure you the problems of finding a bathroom, if your location did not have one, were intense.

So while there are a number of interesting survival strategies that the homeless use (stuffing crumbled newspapers into loose garments to act as insulation), one of their biggest problems is that they have no legal standing.  If you think the police can be a little rude and self righteous now, just let one of them think you are a homeless person and see the difference.  Of course the behavior of a lot of homeless people is far less than perfect, but at least a portion of them are unfortunate individuals who didn’t have any friends or families to fall back on when they ran into tough times.

And if our economy keeps sliding downhill, and people continue to run out of unemployment benefits, a lot more people who don’t normally fit into the pattern we think of as the “permanently homeless” are going to find themselves there.

So while I have not looked closely at the site, I did see an interesting homeless survival guide website.  Maybe preppers should work more on their homelessness skills, than bug out bags.

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