Life and death for the homeless this winter

January 8, 2014

Nicole Colson looks at the very different experiences of the haves and have-nots today.

AS FRIGID winter weather descended on much of the U.S. at the start of the month, there were serious concerns for the many people at risk of physical harm from the "polar vortex" cold.

But there's another danger compounding the cold this winter and putting people at risk--and it's a man-made one: Poverty.

Cities across the Midwest took usual steps to minimize the impact of the cold weather for residents--but for people already living on the edge, severe cold poses a threat to their very lives.

In Chicago, for example, homeless shelters were operating at capacity according to reports, which forced those who couldn't get in to try to find alternate shelter--or, in some cases, to ride public transportation all night in order to stay warm.

Kevin Govert and Marcus Faletti, both homeless, were interviewed by the DNAinfo Chicago website in the gentrified Wicker Park neighborhood as temperatures began to plummet at the start of the month. Both explained that they were taking their chances on the street--since the only homeless shelter with beds available was, they said, infested with bedbugs.

A homeless man stranded outdoors in the bitter cold of winter
A homeless man stranded outdoors in the bitter cold of winter (Reed Sandridge)

According to the DNAinfo report:

Govert, who sleeps near a building that's being converted into a fitness club, said he awoke to construction workers putting a plastic tarp over him to keep moisture off his "frozen sleeping bag," while Faletti, who sleeps near an area school, used "a bunch of comforters."

"I had to brush snow off [myself]," Faletti said, adding, "Ain't been light, ain't stopped snowing."

City warming centers were kept open for extended hours during the stretch of record-cold days--but once they do close for the night, people are forced to find someplace else to go.

This raises the question: Why, in a city dripping with wealth, should any person have to wonder where they will sleep on any night of the year, let alone the coldest so far? Why can't the city provide adequate beds, in a safe and clean environment, for people who need them?

Chicago public schools--notorious for systemic problems heating dilapidated school buildings in winter and cooling them in summer--only cancelled January 6 and 7 classes at the last minute, after an outcry from parents and from the Chicago Teachers Union. The union rightly argued that children attempting to travel to school in frigid temperatures would be at serious risk for frostbite and other health problems.

And just where was "Mayor 1 Percent," Rahm Emanuel, during one of the most severe weather crises in the city's history? On vacation with his family in Indonesia for more than a week, until enough bad press finally forced him to return, looking well-rested and freshly tanned.

And like Emanuel, you wouldn't find J. Peter Lark, general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, in the city that he's supposed to be serving during its crisis. The head of the "progressive, community-owned" utility in Michigan's capital city left Lansing for a vacation with his wife in New York City--the day after a severe ice storm in late December left 40,000 people without electricity and heat, some for as long as 11 days.

BUT EVEN before the record cold descended on the Midwest, this winter was taking a deadly toll on the most vulnerable, even in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the wealthiest in the country. In December, at least seven homeless men died from exposure in separate incidents across the Bay Area, according to the ThinkProgress website.

Among the victims was Joe White, a 50-year-old man who had been homeless and living on the streets of Hayward. According to writer Scott Keyes, White "wanted to work and was able to find odd jobs here and there, but it was never much or consistent enough to afford a place to live. Hayward has no emergency shelter with beds for single men, so White slept outside."

After waiting and waiting, White was finally second on a list for permanent housing support in Hayward. But before he could be placed, his body was found in the courtyard of the Hayward City Hall. He had been beaten and robbed of his new winter coat--police speculated that he died as a result of exposure.

According to ThinkProgress:

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 700 homeless people die from hypothermia every year. Those deaths tend to occur in the East Coast and Midwest, not California. But temperatures in the Bay have repeatedly dipped below freezing in the past few weeks, leaving thousands of homeless people in danger.

The Bay Area has one of the highest homeless populations in part because of the explosion of recent wealth that has led to increasing inequality and a lack of affordable housing for those without high-paying tech jobs...

[F]or those viscerally impacted by rising inequality, life is especially difficult when the temperatures drop. Many communities in the Bay Area lack emergency shelters, in part because freezes aren't very common. But what happens to many of the thousands of people living without shelter in the Bay Area, waiting for their name to be called for the few affordable housing units that exist?

"What happens is they die on the street," Betty DeForest, director emeritus of South Hayward Parish, wrote in an e-mail to the City Council last week following White's death.

In San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, where the median household annual income was $91,000 in 2012, at least three men--Daniel Brillhart, Enrique Rubio and Daniel Moore--died, probably from exposure, between Thanksgiving and mid-December.

Moore, according to the San Jose Mercury News, "was found huddled on a cardboard pallet behind a Jack in the Box trash bin." Brillhart, according to the paper, "died in a trash-strewn area beneath Highway 87, less than an hour into the final Thanksgiving of his life."

THESE MEN were literally tossed aside in one of the richest parts of the country. And if you ask Greg Gopman, that's exactly the way it should be.

Gopman, the 27-year-old founder of tech startup AngelHack, took to his Facebook page in early December to tell the world exactly what he thinks about San Francisco's homeless population:

The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet and generally stay out of your way. They realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that's okay.

In downtown SF, the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure...In actuality, it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It's a disgrace...

You can preach compassion, equality, and be the biggest lover in the world, but there is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us.

Such statements are a window into how the elites see the rest of us. Gopman wasn't saying anything unique for his class--he merely said it publicly. Actually, though, as Colorlines' Julianne Hing pointed out, the high-tech bonanza centered in the Bay Area has been a central factor in making the homelessness crisis worse. As Hing wrote:

Here's what Gopman may not realize. The tech boom of which Gopman's a part has spurred an influx of wealth into the Bay Area, and with it, a class of new arrivals who want a piece of the small city's charm. Swift market forces and the absence of protective regulations have spurred skyrocketing rents and no-fault evictions. Evictions, according to San Francisco's Eviction Defense Collective's 2012 report, are a leading cause of homelessness in the city..."Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated that immediately prior to becoming homeless they lived in a home owned or rented by themselves or their partner," the report's authors write.

Put another way, people like Gopman may actually be contributing to the, ahem, degeneration, of the lives of the city's most vulnerable.

Gopman and his ilk not only view those of us among the "masses" as unfit to breath the same air as they do. They also ignore the multiple ways in which the system has been rigged to favor the tiny minority they belong to. They take because they can, while the rest of us get along with less--and then they have the gall to flaunt their wealth.

Like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon, whose mega-bank helped push the U.S. economy off a cliff in 2008 with its reckless gambling, leaving millions of working-class Americans to pay the price.

Dimon, who still makes $19 million a year, sent a holiday card to JPMorgan employees featuring him and his family, including the family dog, hitting tennis balls around a room in their palatial home. In the picture, they seem totally unconcerned about the expensive vases, ornaments and a Jackson Pollock painting that they could have ruined during their playtime. It was as if, said MSNBC host Chris Hayes, the Dimon family was saying: "Hey, we're so rich we can destroy our own stuff."

And there's Amazon founder--and now Washington Post owner--Jeff Bezos, who was "rescued" by the Ecuadorean Navy so...he could pass a kidney stone in comfort. Bezos was vacationing on his luxury yacht in the Galapagos Islands when he began feeling pain from the kidney stone. He was evacuated by an Ecuadorean Navy helicopter to Baltra Island, where his private jet flew him to the U.S. for "emergency treatment."

THE PROBLEM isn't just the out-of-control arrogance of a few super-rich banksters or Internet tycoons. These examples reflect a deep polarization in U.S. society--and the chasm between rich and poor will be even greater if some of the elite get their way.

The elimination of supplemental unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, plus deep cuts in programs such as food stamps--which has lost $5 billion in funding under the federal government's "sequester," a huge blow to the 47 million Americans who rely on them to make ends meet every month--are pushing already desperate families even closer to the brink this winter.

But Forbes columnist John Tamny recently told the Daily Show's Jessica Williams that if he had his way, he would abolish food stamps altogether, and force the poor and working poor to rely on charity instead. "I think if people were literally starving, you would see a massive outpouring of charity to make up for that fact," Tamny said.

After all, he added, it's not like America's poor are literally starving in the streets. "If you're going to be poor, this is the country you'd want to be poor in," he said.

Tell that to the seven homeless men who died from entirely preventable causes in the Bay Area this winter. Tell that to those in the Midwest trying to find shelter from the storm. Tell that to anyone in the U.S. worrying about how to make ends meet or feed their kids--while people like Jaime Dimon and Jeff Bezos live luxury, with money to burn.

This winter, we should remember those who are being left out in the cold--and fight for a world where no one is.

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