Farewell Welfare?

By Renard Teipelke

In the typical Hollywood movie, a homeless person is normally sitting in front of a office building and begging for a few cents. In contrast to other features of Hollywood movies, this is actually not an unrealistic image. Similar to many other countries, homeless people in the United States are having a life full of struggles: no health insurance, hardly any sheltered places to sleep in, no humane life. Those are only three aspects that roughly describe the everyday challenges for homeless people.

In the US, homeless people have never been seen as ‘normal’ members of society. Citizens perceive them as making the downtown area dirtier and less safe. Thus, homeless people are forced out. But since the US is a democracy and a country that values rights and liberties as core principles of its constitution, ‘clever’ strategies instead of outright expulsion measures had to be found . And they were found!

One strategy is based on new constructions in the city center. Partly gigantic building projects are used to refurbish business zones and attract new investors. Eventually, new complexes are ‘secured’ like fortresses with the help of intelligent observation technology and private security guards. They are always keeping track of people lingering in front of these buildings. It has become part of the standard surroundings of office buildings that signs declare them as non-smoking and non-loitering areas. People are simply not supposed to stay there.

In order to complete the strategy of ‘evicting’ homeless people from the downtown area, decision makers had to address another major objective: forestalling any sleeping option in the city center. The solution was found in bum-proof benches and single-seat arrangements – homeless people were to be prevented from lying down on public furniture. Though these ‘inventions’ have diminished the seating quality for all users, citizens seem to have offset this deterioration against the justified hope of parks and playgrounds freed of homeless people. This was complemented by sprinkler systems that ‘curiously’ water not only park lawns but also paths and seating areas during night hours. Last but not least, more and more public areas are simply closed from dusk till dawn.

But how have these strategies played out and how is this linked to the current financial and economic crisis? One aspect are tent cities. They have been popping up all over the United States in semi-urban areas. And in the wake of tremendous socioeconomic disruptions, tent cities have not only become the place where homeless people sleep, but also the ‘new home’ of US citizens that were forced out of their old homes, because they could not meet their obligations towards banks and insurance companies, or they were laid off and literally lost any securities in their life. Thus, a concerning number of America’s ‘middle class’ has moved to derelict areas next to and under interstates and freeways – no man’s land, a legal vacuum, ‘living’ conditions that we could have not thought of as part of the everyday life in the 21st century in the highest developed country on earth.

What is most concerning is that people without a permanent address have become a particular group in the US-American society – a society that worships the ideal of self-made upward mobility. This has always been only one side of the coin – research indicates that it is far ‘easier’ to move down the social ladder than up. Being actually part of a distinctive underclass has already become the reality for many citizens who see themselves as part of the middle class. If we think about how the existing underclass (particularly certain racial and ethnic groups) are treated in the US-American society, it is not difficult to imagine where people without a home are standing… – in the snowy streets of Philadelphia, in the ice-cold winds of Chicago, in the pouring rain of New York City, or in the suffocating heat of Houston.

Even though the situation in the highly developed US is really extreme, we should not forget that plenty of other countries that praise themselves as social welfare states are dealing with similar problems or other disturbing side effects of the financial and economic crisis. It is in times like these when welfare programs actually have to be extended instead of initiating one of the traditional, time and again failing liberalizations.

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