The town council had enough of vagrants, beggars, and drunks. So it passed some laws. First, it ordered that foreign vagrants not be allowed to stay in the city for more than three days. Then, it required that indigenous beggars obtain a license from the city government. Finally, it hired police inspectors to patrol the streets.
Sound vaguely familiar? This was the solution to solving the problem of poor people in 16th century Amsterdam. And it worked-to keep the newly hired police busy. As Philip Gorski wrote in The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe, once the laws were passed, “In any given year, beggars typically made up between one quarter and one-third of all arrests.”
Fast forward to the late 20th century. The same punitive measures taken against society’s poorest citizens 500 years ago made their way into the municipal and park codes of cities throughout the United States. Laws banning panhandling, loitering, sleeping in public-or even sitting in public parks after dark-became commonplace, as cities moved to end the irksome problem of poor people by sweeping their offensive presence from the view of their more fortunate neighbors.
But moving beggars out of sight is not the only approach that’s been tried through the ages. The movement to end cash benefits to homeless people, exemplified by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Care-Not-Cash initiative, is, yes, 500 years old. In 16th century Amsterdam, the city fathers decided that giving poor people money would be a waste. They offered in-kind assistance-in the form of services or goods from bakers, tailors and cobblers-as the alternative. What poor people needed to do was work, and not beg, no matter their physical condition. (remember also the ‘poorhouse’ or work-house, where poor people were made to stay, and work, for food and shelter) “Get the hence to tha’ workie” was the Irish Sheriff’s cry.
Even during the New Deal, a political program considered extraordinary for its attempts to level society’s economic inequities, there was a push to pay the poor with vouchers. The basic assumption underlying this notion was that poor people could not decide how to intelligently spend their own money, or that they were pretenders-fraudulently collecting checks they didn’t really need. Proponents of this idea in its current form promise, in an attempt to appear compassionate, that in-kind assistance will be given to homeless people that will more than make up for the absence of cash welfare.
But as homeless people know, this promised in-kind assistance fails to materialize. Waiting lists for housing and health services grow longer in San Francisco, and the promise of housing often means a shelter bed. The Section 8 list for affordable housing runs to more than 8000 individuals and families and is closed for the next ten years.
Just as the new ideas are really the same old ideas in shiny cellophane wrapping, the same notions and misconceptions about the poor have been handed down from generation to generation, from the old world to the new. There existed 500 years ago what we now call the “magnet theory” of homelessness, prevalent in every city in America today, which claims that visible poverty and panhandling in a local city are due to foreigners and out-of-towners who are magnetically drawn to that city because of it’s generous welfare assistance. Boston, in 1789 refused to provide relief to desperate mothers with children for fear that able-bodied men would take advantage of that relief to move to town.
The parallels between today’s battles on the streets and those of half a millennium ago are comical-and terrifying. One would think that after 500 years of criminalizing, marginalizing and demonizing poor people in an attempt to solve poverty, we would realize that punishing poor people for being poor just doesn’t work. Perhaps it is time to stop pounding our heads into the wall and actually try to deal with the mess, rather than sweeping it beyond the city limits.
What we learn from the lessons of history is that homelessness and poverty subside when there is affordable housing for everyone, jobs that pay a living wage, sufficient community support and social connections for all.
The most recent wave of homelessness in the United States, beginning in the 1980s, did not stem from a lack of anti-panhandling laws or insufficient control of welfare recipients. Homelessness became endemic, chronic and institutionalized when we systematically took apart an already stretched social safety net. We decimated social programs and agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and slashed affordable housing development and subsidies. We failed to ensure health care for millions of Americans and decided to allow workers to take their chances in an uncertain economic climate as large economic shifts caused declines in their wages and job stability. And, finally we failed to provide promised community mental health care after closing large mental hospitals and wondered at the large numbers of mentally ill people talking to themselves on our streets. We continue to fail to address inequalities and inadequacies in our educational system; and fail to treat all human beings as deserving of respect and as inherently valuable.
If we want to end homelessness we can do so by fulfilling our moral obligations to provide effective systems of community and social support that nurture individuals, by seeing the sacred in every living human, by treating all people as capable of success and transformation. If we do this-if we provide people with the social conditions that permit them to take on their individual responsibilities, by ensuring there are sufficient housing opportunities and decent jobs-then we fulfill that obligation to allow individuals to grow and thrive to their fullest potential.