When the wheels come off, inhumanity reigns

Today, in “blog posts that probably should have been a Tweet”…

Reading Adam Johnson’s “People ‘Feel Unsafe’ Because Visible Poverty Is Everywhere” last night hit me hard, and I haven’t been able to shake it. A few key excerpts:

Homelessness is used interchangeably with crime despite it not being one—beyond a social one inflicted upon homeless people, rather than carried about by them. Countless headlines and news broadcasts daily conflate poverty with crime. It’s so routine one hardly notices:

Screenshot of Politico story: "Crime upstages progressive priorities in Los Angeles mayor's race" with photo of homeless people living in tents.

There has been a sharp rise in Visible Poverty in urban areas. As disruptions by the pandemic created a whole host of externalities, pandemic aid was cut by bipartisan consensus, and rent prices spiral out of control, there are simply more visible poor people.

When the average person is accosted by someone suffering from Visible Poverty and mental health issues outside of a Starbucks, their response is, “Why isn’t this man in jail?” not, “Why did society fail to care for this person?” Because this is what they are conditioned to think, by the media, politicians, pop culture, and decades of carceral ideological framing. Cruelty is baked into our puritan culture, reinforced daily by everything from Perseverance Porn to nonstop pandemic-themed Welfare Queen tropes.

…And we wonder why people’s response to Visible Poverty is to make this horrific sight intelligible by blaming the poor and demanding they be “swept” up. Until this visceral, widespread reaction to Visible Poverty—fueled constantly by local media that’s little more than an appendage for the real estate industry—shifts, the political dynamic of mindlessly pumping more and more money into prisons and police cannot change.

Though Johnson’s piece tackles the issue from an American perspective, this dynamic is very much in play here in British Columbia. On a (wonderful) visit to Vancouver last week, it was impossible to miss the increase in unhoused people in the long-tragic Downtown Eastside. Here in Kamloops, we’ve also had more visible poverty, and a dramatic spike in local residents complaining about how “sketchy” things are getting, and all the code words for “safety” ever-louder in the political discourse.

I’m not dismissing the fears. I live downtown, lived a decade in East Van and know how it goes. And I too fear for my safety. Not because the sight of an impoverished person somehow endangers me, but because I am not impervious to whatever put those people’s lives in such a perilous state. I’m also terrified by the attitudes of fellow citizens, which I fear will be sending us down an even more ruinous path in the years ahead.

Kamloops is effectively unaffordable for renters, squeezing even those of us fortunate enough (for now) to have solid middle-class incomes. Numerous people in my circles, including myself, have experienced the intense stress, uncertainty and financial strain of trying to find housing in this market. I cannot imagine what it is like for people with lower and less stable incomes, or who don’t benefit from being a white middle-aged male. Thompson Rivers University has started to put students into temporary modular housing, and it’s nearly impossible to recruit new staff unless they are already settled here.

Graph showing housing prices rising far beyond US levels.

And of course, the Canadian housing sales market is even more unhinged from reality. With interest rate spikes and an induced recession looming, a lot of people are facing potential ruin. There is a high likelihood of deep cuts and layoffs across all sectors, including education.

So yes, the visibility of poverty and precarity and seeing what it is doing to people everywhere I look undermines my sense of security and safety. Personally, my anger is directed at leaders who allowed the housing bubble to get to this point, because the rise in asset values and associated revenues were masking other problems. Or the blobs of capital that are inflating values and the criminal money laundering that has been indulged. But it seems many BC residents would rather stigmatize, criminalize and harass the most grievously harmed instead.

On the drive to Vancouver last week, news broke of a horrible mass shooting in Langley, one that targeted what the police described as “transient” victims. One of them was Paul Wynn, who features in this 2019 story about the city of Langley banning the homeless from its parks, one of the many such punitive acts employed across the province as housing has become less accessible.

I suppose it makes me “woke” to recall a recent video from the ultra-wealthy podcaster Joe Rogan, who thought it was funny and cool to riff on filthy unhoused people, how ridiculous it was that they had access to minimal sanitation, any possessions or rights at all, and how maybe they should be shot… all while smoking a stogie with a stooge.

(If you need a palate cleanser after that, I might suggest Tim Heidecker’s on-point send-up of Rogan. Don’t be scared off by the runtime.)

Since this post is just an inflated Twitter rant anyway… I listened to this podcast episode from The Bottlemen today, and recommend this short segment that amplifies these themes. Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner is back from a recent tour of the Pacific Northwest, and he chats with co-host Riley Quinn about how the scale of unhoused population has grown and evolved, how the wheels are evidently coming off the machines of capitalism, and how it is all signified in the emergent shantytown infrastructure constructed from the detritus of urban scooter initiatives.

animated GIF of a goden face sculpture melting in the sun

I’m about midway through my first significant non-Christmas vacation in more than two years. Do I know how to have fun or WHAT? But the tenor of this post aside, I’ve been digging the time off with some fantastic and fun friends, sharing life with people that I care about. I’d be enjoying it more if I didn’t feel like we were in the preamble of a dystopian sci fi movie.

2 thoughts on “When the wheels come off, inhumanity reigns

  1. Brian, thanks for posting this. Lots for me to think about. Maybe I can collect a few intelligent thoughts about it that we can share in person soon.

    1. Thank you for reading. I always get a lot out of talking with you and am sure your thoughts are more intelligent than mine.

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