Saturday, 8 May 2010

Damned homeless people and their hunger

**Trigger warning for reference to violence and half-hearted warning for a bit of profanity that is censored anyway**

How does one write an entire article about the homeless and manage to completely avoid even the vaguest reference to their vulnerability and lack of well-being? This is how.

There are too many gems to quote them all, and by "gems" I mean "instances of blatant disregard for the humanity of these people who dare to be hungry enough or desperate enough in their particular dependencies to beg for money". So just read the entire thing. It focuses on how bothersome the homeless are to businesses and tourists. Here are some quotes from the business owners consulted for their wise perspectives:

"As a tourist-oriented place we need to have the issue addressed as it may have adverse effects."

And another store owner:

"It is not right for people to come here and have this type of harassment. We cannot be spending this type of money to advertise Barbados and having a few people ruining the experience for them."

"It is a big problem and nobody seems to be dealing with it," he continued.

I have two things to say to this. First, tourists: "here is my country Barbados. It is lovely, the food is outstanding, the music is entrancing, the weather, the beaches, the people, all great. Some of these people, though, just like some of the people in your countries, have mental health challenges, substance dependencies and other circumstances which contribute to them living on the streets and sometimes not being able to feed themselves. Do help them if you'd like. Welcome to Barbados."

And second, yes, the 'issue' has to be addressed because there are 'adverse effects'. You know who is most adversely affected? The f**king homeless. I swore there, see. And I hardly swear in print. Such is the absurdity of the notions expressed here.

The idea that we have some kind of obligation to the people who visit this country to shield them from some of the manifestations of poverty - poverty that is in some instances maintained because of the unbalanced economic and political power relations between their countries of origin and ours (I know I should qualify this since it begs discussion, but that is a whole other post, so do ask "What?!" if you want to hear more) - is problematic. There are issues of safety, of course. And we should strive to maintain peace and security for all people, native or other, who happen to be resident here at any given moment for any length of time. But to frame this 'vagrancy problem' as 'a few people ruining the experience' of tourists, which is what I'm sure they set out to do when they left their pavements this morning - and to suggest that solely for this reason should we try to get human beings off the streets and into homes with food to eat and livelihoods to maintain themselves is getting things a bit ass backwards.

Our primary obligation is to secure the well-being of the citizens of this nation and region. That's what our development agenda, of which tourism is only a part, is all about. Economic arguments are sexy. I know. I make them every day. I'm often asked to make various cases for things "in economic terms", because that's what those with influence understand. And this is true. It's useful sometimes to show people the costs of certain policies or behaviours. When a woman is abused, when she is burnt with acid or stabbed or punched in the face, there are real costs to the State, to the economy, to the society. But you know what else? When a woman is punched in the face, a woman has just been punched in the face. So inherently, you see, this is a very bad thing. And while one gets that macro considerations are important and one does not want to lose one's job making these linkages clear, one gets jaded making economic arguments for things that should just be about common f**king decency and basic human rights.

Similarly, homelessness is bad for tourism, I suppose. So is littering and other forms of environmental degradation. Perhaps, so is getting annoyed with your friend in public and yelling YEAH? WELL F**K YOU TOO within earshot of a nervous tourist, since one gets the idea that we're all supposed to do the friendly native dance and not sully the tourist landscape with our actual character or personality or challenges. But poverty, homelessness, environmental decline, these are all problems that compromise the well-being of real people. And tourism is an important income earner for many, yes, but I am frankly afraid of the notion that all that is important is the tourist dollar and not spooking the flighty tourists dem, even if that means cleaning up the streets by stuffing the homeless into the nearest manhole out of sight of the money-spenders.

Quite a few of us realize the value of helping displaced people off the streets. There is a pretty impressive young man who started a local charity, the Barbados Vagrants & Homeless Society, with this as its mandate. And while the name is a little unfortunate, the work of the organisation and the support it has received from government are encouraging. Still, articles like this one contribute to the popular intolerance of the homeless. There's nothing wrong with considering some of the spinoff effects of homelessness, but showcasing the homeless as a nuisance and nothing more removes their humanity, and tells people it's alright to do the same.


  1. This bit struck me: "Mayhew also noted that the situation was very unfortunate for tourists as they might be fearful, and at times give away their money at the vagrants' requests."

    I'm hearing a strong undercurrent of "And if they give money to vagrants, they're not spending it on the businesses we want to have prosper."

  2. You know what's freakier still about the article? I think it was slightly adapted and then published here in Seattle. One of our city council people was pushing for a crackdown on "aggressive panhandling". We think it's cause he's getting ready to run for some higher orifice...I mean office.

    But the tone, everything. Perhaps there is only one demeaning article about homeless folks that is moved among the press these days and slightly altered as to quotes for locations?

    Lincoln Rose
    Seattle, WA


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