Friday, July 11, 2014

Homelessness as contagion: Bills 42, 43, & 44 before Honolulu's City Council


“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
             --George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946

I've attended the last two City Council meetings on bills to criminalize homelessness, one in late June and the other on July 9. Of course they are not called bills to criminalize homelessness, rather they merely "relate to public sidewalks" and to "defecating and urinating in public" in Waikiki and in Chinatown. (Another bill extends the range to all of Oahu.) At the first meeting, I listened as testifiers came before the Council to speak for or against the bills. It struck me then that two central arguments were being made: the first, by the side in favor, was based on the economy. Business people spoke in favor because they are losing business when homeless people camp in front of their store fronts. The second side said very little about the economy, except that homelessness is the symptom of a bad one; instead, this side's argument was a moral, sometimes a religious, one. "The least among us" was a phrase I heard more than once. How can you throw already homeless people off the sidewalks? (More than that, the penalty for such behavior is a fine; if the homeless cannot pay the fine, they end up in prison, where they are housed--in a modern-day debtors' prison.)

Honolulu's Mayor Kirk Caldwell was quoted at the end of June in the New York Times. "We haven’t eliminated the visual impact of homelessness,” Mr. Caldwell said. “When visitors come here, they want to see their paradise. They don’t want to see homeless people sleeping in parks or on sidewalks or on the beach . . . . I want to do this in a constitutional way, a human way, but I want to do it. We need to do it. I call it compassionate disruption — we are not doing it without heart.”

Where to begin a close-reading of such "jibber jabber," as one testifier called it? Perhaps with "the visual impact of homelessness." The Mayor sets us on the cosmetic level, the level of surfaces (nay sidewalks). This "visual impact" is not on the homeless, forced to witness others' disdain or avoidance of them, nor even on residents, but on visitors to the island who have come pursuing a fantasy that they want to see--if not in truth, then at least on their vacation. They do not want to see the homeless, who are an affront to the myth of Paradise, who are, in fact, more a part of the myth of the Fall. If Waikiki exists within the walls of ocean on one side and the Ala Wai canal on the other, then it offers Paradise before the Fall. Kick the homeless outside these walls because they sin against the image of Paradise. They have eaten the apple of poverty. But the richest of Caldwell's phrases is the seeming paradox of "compassionate disruption," which he has offered up on other occasions. "Compassion" is a word that means "to suffer with." It requires imagination--to feel compassion, you must feel as if you are someone else--and also to feel "for" them. "Disruption," on the other hand, means "a violent rending apart." Is not homelessness already disruption enough? How is the violent rending of "sweeping" (for that is the term) people off the streets also an act of "compassion"? Perhaps the Mayor means to use high falutin' language for "tough love," but that phrase, too, sounds better than it means. He wants to accomplish this violent rending in "a human way," "with heart."

Somewhere, Caldwell learned about the use of paradox. But he did not learn that simply yoking opposites together doesn't necessarily mean anything, especially in a world that is not metaphorical but real. Paradox works beautifully in poetry because poetry often imagines a different reality, but Caldwell is not talking poetry, he is talking public policy. To make the treatment of the poor into a clever paradox does not, cannot, help them, even if it makes him feel smart.

In my research on Alzheimer's, I found that right wing politicians talk about "illegal aliens" and people with "Alzheimer's" in much the same way. They are rootless, scary because they have no sense of boundaries or frontiers, and they don't obey laws that governments attempt to force upon them. Today, I see an article in AlterNet about the crisis of immigrant children at the US border, in which the author points out the use of "sickness" as a way to frighten people away from sympathizing with children in detention. You can read the article here, but the money quote (as it were) is this: "But the controversy really boiled over with news reports last week that these children were 'diseased' and were being shipped all over the nation, infecting Americans with everything from H1N1 flu to scabies to Cangas fever. Whatever other problems these people may have had with these children being allowed to seek asylum in America, it was now a public health threat." 

I'm not here to argue that all undocumented immigrants are healthy people; clearly, they cannot be, due to the situation they find themselves in, their lack of health care, the trauma of their exodus from Central American countries.  But it's clear that the trope (not the reality) of illness is intended to scare American citizens, make them want to reject the "illegal" "germ" that is the refugee. And I'm also here to report that the language of Bill 42 (re: Waikiki) and its echo, Bill 44 (re: Chinatown) feeds off this very system of metaphor. (Thank you Lakoff and Johnson, for your Metaphors We Live By.) 
For the bill itself, like the testifiers about it, splits between tropes of "health" and "disease," economics and the threat of hard times. Look at Bill 42, section (a), third paragraph down, and read this:

The public welfare is promoted by an economically healthy Waikiki special district area that attracts people, including visitors, to reside, shop, work and resident accommodations, restaurants, retail shops and other commercial establishments that offer a unique visitor experience and provides easily -accessible goods and services, employments opportunities, the tax revenues necessary to support essential public services and the economic productivity necessary to maintain and improve property within the area.

So, the welfare of the "public" (most of whom are visitors) depends on the "health" of the economy. What gets contrasted with such economic robustness, but "danger" and "obstacle" and "bad behavior"? See the next paragraph:

Persons who sit or lie down on public sidewalks deter residents and visitors from patronizing local shops, restaurants, businesses, and cultural and art venues, and deter people from using the neighborhood sidewalks . . . Business areas and neighborhoods become dangerous to pedestrian safety and economic vitality in the Waikiki special district . . . This behavior [of blocking the sidewalk] causes a cycle of decline as residents and visitors go elsewhere . . . residents become intimidated from tusing the public sidewalks because of obstructions in their own neighborhoods.

From then on, this becomes an issue of "safety" from disruption (this is not compassionate disruption, mind you). When we get to Bill 43, 'RELATING TO URINATING AND DEFECATING IN PUBLIC," we read about "a public health risk because of the possible spread of disease." Fair enough: untreated human waste is hardly healthy stuff. But when--as person after person testified--there are not enough public restrooms in Honolulu to accommodate a real human need, then what? Arrest people for not finding an unfindable restroom? For "intentionally or knowingly" fulfilling an absolute human need?

During the testimony on the second day of hearings I attended, David Cantwell, a homeless man in a wheelchair, pulled out "pooping pads," which he distributed to each member of the council. On this KITV report, you can hear him ask, "are we supposed to poop in our pants?" What gets left out is his question to the council members: "have YOU ever pooped in your pants?" You can see him (and me) here

So we're left with the dichotomy between health and disease, as if health were money, disease its lack. If you're "unhealthy," you need to be separated from the healthy, either by being "interned," as Kathryn Xian aptly put it, put in prison, or left on a distant island where no one can see your diseased skin or self. (That's been done before in this state.) The state will always opt for health (if not, of course, for health care). And so it did, passing the second reading of the bills on to a third reading, with only two council members in opposition to some of it. Remember their names, Breene Harimoto (of Pearl City) and Kymberley Marcos Pine (of Ewa, Waianae). They are legislators who answer to more than the monied interests. I found Ikaika Anderson notable for asking questions only of testifiers who agreed with him. "Do you not think that Waikiki tax revenues pay firefighters and police and university professors?" he asked one supporter. Which begs the question, again, of who supports the least among us. When that question gets asked, Ikaika Anderson will not come forward.

Here is how I ended my testimony on that second day:

So what is being hidden by this rhetoric and the language the bills before you, aside from the homeless themselves? What's being hidden is that this is all about money. Who is to pay for the poorest among us—the ones who cannot afford a $1000 fine for breaking these proposed laws—that's what is at stake here. The language of the bills pits a “healthy economy” (which we need) against an “unhealthy” “disruptive” and “dangerous” group of people who have nowhere to stay except sidewalks and nowhere to urinate or defecate because there are so few public restrooms and they're being chased out of parks that have them.

If you're going to pass these bills, at least acknowledge that you are voting to protect businesses and to sweep away real human beings who are “unsightly” and have no resources. If you're going to pass these bills, announce what you're doing. You're setting up to put people in prison for not being able to pay a fine that would keep them out of prison. You will be paying to house them in prison where visitors to paradise–to say nothing of outsiders buying fancy condos in Kakaako--cannot see them. You are privatizing blame and cost, while the “social contract” is being used to exclude some to the benefit of others.

Photograph of missing Ikaika Anderson (off on a restroom break, one presumes) is by Kaho'olemana Naone.

1 comment:

H. Doug Matsuoka said...

Mahalo for your testimony. The Honolulu City Council no longer posts videos of its hearings. I had to request a copy from which I extracted your testimony. One of the few that drew applause!