Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sanitizing the Streets

Leilani Farha,  a Canadian lawyer and also the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, charged with probing deplorable living conditions and assessing compliance with international human rights law while on  a walking tour in central San Francisco making tortillas commented “The last time I saw cooking on a sidewalk was in Mumbai.” She observed, "The situation is unacceptable in light of the wealth of the country,” adding that she was “deeply, deeply concerned” by the homelessness she saw.

In Mexico City, she spent time in a slum by a railway line. In Manila and Jakarta, she visited decrepit and makeshift houses. Farha had come on an unofficial visit to San Francisco which has a median home value of $1.3m.

  Last month, another rapporteur was dismayed by visits to Skid Row in Los Angeles and hookworm-afflicted deep south communities. In 2011, a UN representative visited Sacramento. After discovering that homeless people were defecating into plastic bags, the official wrote to the city’s mayor. Such circumstances, she said, could amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

Homelessness is on the rise in the US for the first time since the great recession. In San Francisco, about 7,500 homeless people were counted last year, more than two-thirds suffering from health conditions. There is almost nowhere in the US that is affordable for those earning minimum wage. The country is short about 7.5m homes for extremely low-income renters. In San Francisco, the waitlist to get into a homeless shelter is more than 1,000 names long.

It would be easy to dismiss such extreme poverty as a product of human frailty. Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, has described poverty as a “state of mind”. Farha takes a contrary view.
“If I turned to San Francisco and there were 100 people who were homeless, I might say, ‘Hmm, this is probably about psychological disability, drug dependence, a history of sexual abuse in their childhood’ or something like that. I might be able to say that it is very individualized. But when you’re seeing the numbers of people who are homeless here and in every other city, you just know it’s structural.”
“In international human rights law,” Farha said, referring to article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “providing shelter to people who are homeless is the absolute minimum standard for any country, regardless of resources.”
in Oakland, she saw in the shadow of several freeways, the city had installed a scattering of sheds, housing about 35 people on a bare patch of gravel. The sheds do not come with electricity, plumbing or insulation. Each has one small window. Such “tiny homes” are increasingly used in western cities when permanent housing is unavailable. Experts fear they could pave the way for American shantytowns. A mile or two away, there was a string of shacks built from discarded materials. Farha picked her way through one, an immense, rickety warren of tarps and wood, the floor sodden and covered with broken glass.

One of the richest counties in California has started evicting hundreds of its poorest residents from a dusty riverbed homeless encampment just a few miles from Disneyland. Activists say the site may be home to as many as 1,000 people. Yet Orange County has admitted that it has just 250 shelter beds currently available.  An local  attempt to install portable toilets in the encampment was blocked by county and then city officials, who worried amenities in the riverbed might further entrench the settlement.  Leilani Farha said the county should halt the riverbed sweeps. “Forcibly evicting people without any alternative housing options for the bulk of them is hugely problematic and not consistent with a human rights approach. It’s about treating people like human beings,” she said

Farha has widened her case. 

"Cities are becoming increasingly uniform. Without question, multi-national brands, be it Starbucks, McDonalds, or H&M, have firmly installed themselves and are sanitizing our streetscapes...  Cities are already starting to resemble sterile airports: filled with smooth glass and steel, lined with generic stores and services which lack any particular cultural relevance, populated only by those who can afford to be there and who come and go, where the population is viewed predominantly as customers, where difference is regarded as a security threat, and where meaningful social interaction rarely occurs....residential real estate is now valued at least 163 trillion dollars, which is more than twice the world’s total GDP. To put this in context – the total value of all the gold ever mined is worth $6 trillion.
Residential real estate is simply the pre-eminent asset class.  Banks, pension and hedge funds, private equity firms and other kinds of financial intermediaries seek out housing in “hedge cities” as a safe haven to park excess capital. They often benefit from tax shelters and use a lack of transparency to provide cover for anonymous investors and capital gained through corruption. And, with no intention of living there. Thousands of homes stand vacant.  his influx of capital has increased housing prices in many cities to levels that most residents cannot afford – in many cities upwards of 50% in less than a 5-year period.  Housing prices are no longer commensurate with household income levels, and instead are driven by demand by global investors.
The effect of skyrocketing housing prices is to push out the people who sustain cities: school teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses and doctors, and the employees of the multi-national coffee, food and retail chains. Some simply move away, facing long commutes back to the city and their jobs. Increasing numbers are forced to live in hostels or on the streets.
If rendered homeless, stereotypes and discrimination that often inform city laws and policies make continuing to live in the city nearly impossible. People living in homelessness are often criminalized for engaging in activities necessary for survival - like standing, sitting or sleeping and sharing food on public lands. They are prevented from using public services like libraries, and shunned by service providers and store owners. In some jurisdictions people who are homeless are swept off the streets and relocated to different jurisdictions.

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