Thursday, August 19, 2021

State violence against homeless encampments and the refusal to know


Many years ago, I was walking in downtown Hamilton with a friend. As often happens in downtown Hamilton, a woman we walked by asked us for spare change.

I no longer remember exactly how the interaction played out – then as now, I often give change if I have it, but not always (particularly after the n'th time of being asked on a given day), and anyway I don't always have any.

I *do* remember that my companion declined to give anything, and the interaction ended with some hostility from the woman who had approached us.

After that, my friend ranted to me about how it was ridiculous that this woman was asking for change when so much of our taxes go to housing and services and all of those things, and this woman should just choose to make use of those.

I was pretty aghast at my usually kind and compassionate friend's (inaccurate) reactionary vitriol.

At the time, I was working doing community-based research related to housing and homelessness and I'd been involved in anti-poverty activism for some time before that, so despite my middle-classness, I had some idea of just how inadequate income and housing-related services were.

As I recall, I didn't have much success in convincing my friend of these realities.

As I reflected after the fact, it became clear to me that one political role for those services my friend pointed to was precisely so that politicians could say to well-intentioned but ignorant middle-class people, "Don't worry, we got this," and be believed.

And I think this active cultivation of the belief that existing resources are suitable and adequate, even generous, is one important element enabling current state violence against homeless people living in encampments.

Active anti-poor hostility driven by neoliberal capital and intertwined with white supremacy, ableism, patriarchy, and settler colonialism underlie it all, but this rhetorical sleight-of-hand re. existing resources plays a part in enabling it.

Of course, frontline workers in the system are often under no illusions about the system's adequacy, and are just trying to do the best they can with what they have.

But managers, other bureaucrats, and politicians – for the most part, the only way they know about the system, the only way they care to know about it, often the only way they are permitted to know about it in the context of their role, is in the terms of the system itself.

On paper, you can have a program that does X, an agency that does Y, and Z number of units of transitional housing or whatever.

So it is very easy for managers, bureaucrats, and politicians to take that on-paper reality as real – to take the system at its word, to judge the system by whether it meets box-checking bureaucratic requirements.

If you actually ask people who need those services, though, they'll tell you that X has never really worked, Y is inaccessible to half the people that need it, and they usually get told the units are full no matter how many reports say Z number are open.

Of course, sometimes authorities just lie, and count on the privileged ignorance like that of my companion from many years ago: "My taxes pay for...why don't they...etc."

But it has been a consistent theme from these instances of state violence against homeless encampments in Canadian cities that authorities claim resources are available and being offered, and can point to some flimsy or inflated on-paper justification.

This gets reported, and then middle-class readers of the news can go away thinking that people violently displaced from encampments either have been housed or could easily have been.

But of course, that is generally not the case at all.

When you hear from people who are homeless and/or advocates supporting them, it becomes clear that the resources are often not available, not being offered, or not suitable. They may check on-paper boxes, but that often doesn't translate into the actual supports people need.

There are no doubt localized exceptions and variation from city to city, but for the most part, in the aftermath of state violence against encampment residents in Canadian cities, only a minority are even temporarily connected with other shelter options.

Most, in most instances, are left to their own devices. The violence has just made them less visible, which is what capital and state authorities care most about.

Again, this is largely not the fault of frontline workers, who work hard to connect people to the resources that do exist.

It's the fault of the system, meaning both capitalism writ large and also our neoliberally fragmented and inadequate social support system.

It's the fault of upper managers and politicians who mostly don't care whether the resources are adequate or not, they just want to have a little bit of cover when they send uniformed goons to displace encampments at the behest of capital and reactionary voters.

It's often partly the fault of mainstream media – even when they report advocate knowledge that the system is inadequate, often they do it in a way that leaves intact the presumed authority of the claims of managers and politicians, despite how consistently those claims are untrue.

And, let's be frank here, it's the fault of ordinary middle-class people who, like my friend from years ago, work really hard to avoid listening to the realities of people who are homeless or are otherwise living in extreme poverty.

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