I don't remember exactly when I first learned about the shantytowns that grew up in the great depression. Maybe it was sixth-grade social studies, or it might have been from the musical "Annie." They stuck in my mind--people forced to make a place for themselves outside society, to grub and scrabble for some kind of shelter and community because society had failed them by handing the government over to the banks and the robber barons.
So I recognized the phenomenon when I first heard about the tent cities in my native Seattle area: Peaceful communities setting up in unused fields and vacant lots. And every few weeks, some homeowner, concerned about the sanitation or the depreciation of his property, called the sheriff and demanded the community be run off.
I can see their point to an extent. Destitution breeds crime because the destitute are desperate. And our local movable shantytowns aren't exactly ornamental. And I never heard what they were doing about...ahem...sanitation, which would be a serious problem for everybody because destitution also breeds disease, and that disease isn't limited to the initial population in which it arises. You would think that the county would sigh and roll their eyes and whine and moan and drag their feet and then truck in a couple of "Honeybuckets", but we're not so much into pragmatism, are we? And yeah, it's easier to ignore the humanity of those desperate people and call on the law to drive them out of sight and mind.
The thing that I find inspiring about those tent cities is the tenacity of humanity. People with nothing--or next to it--find a way to recreate society for themselves. They are no longer destitute:[i] they have their tents even if those tents are plastic tarps spread over sticks. They have neighbors. They have the human ability to coordinate and cooperate, and they put society back together again out of nothing. Anybody who isn't inspired by that to be a better neighbor and a better person, isn't fit to be a citizen, and anybody who can look at these people and demonize them as lazy or stupid or criminal, could learn a lot more about human value by watching them than by donating to the local food bank and attending church every day of the week.
Which all reminds me of a thought expressed by Thomas Paine in "Agricultural Justice."[ii] Paine looked at the North American native population and observed that they worked less hard than the poorest of Paine's civilized[iii] countrymen and yet had all their needs met. Civilization had the potential to meet all the same needs and much, much more. The fact that it failed to do so seemed to him to be unjust.
In Paine’s view, citizens have no choice as to whether they are born into civilization or not. Therefore, civilization has failed if it fails to provide all of it citizens a quality of life at least as good as that they would enjoy if civilization had never arisen. All citizens should, therefore, have a bare minimum of food, shelter and clothing sufficient to keep them alive without having to work themselves to death.
Paine had his own suggestions as to how to accomplish that—every citizen should, upon turning 21, receive a grubstake of 15 lb. sterling[iv] and the elderly over 50 years, which was considered comfortably old by the standards of his time, should receive 10 lb./year until they died. Given the current economic needs of our civilization, we might consider providing every young person with a free or very inexpensive but good college education, or, alternatively, training and apprenticeship in a useful craft. If he, nevertheless, failed in his endeavors, he should be supported at 10 lb./year until he got back onto his feet. In our current circumstances, we, by Paine’s standard, have an obligation to provide assistance to the unemployed until job openings should once again equal the number of people looking for jobs. Until we can get our act together and make some practical efforts to stimulate our economy, this is a good opportunity to provide good education[v] or job training to those who are currently unemployed or under-employed. With the added benefit that by doing so, we create new jobs.
In Symbiosis, the in-progress sequel to Symbiont[vi], I am taking some time to explore some ways we might address our problems with homelessness: self-cleaning restrooms stationed in designated campsites, mobile medical units that make regular circuits of the tent-cities, food deliveries, job-search services. Here in the real world, some communities are experimenting with building tiny houses, 500 to 750 sq. ft., designed to accommodate a family in reasonable comfort. I think Utah is doing something remarkable in simply sticking homeless people in homes. Where the collapse of the housing bubble left us with too many empty houses vulnerable to vandals and squatters, a vetted and approved homeless family with an assigned social worker could, arguably, be a better option for a bank than a property falling apart from neglect. Not to mention that those empty houses, inviting misuse, expose an entire community to crime that could be prevented by the mere presence of…well…occupants. And again, all this creates jobs—jobs for social workers, building inspectors, accountants, managers. Jobs that weren’t there before, and now they are.
I like win-win solutions. Not “It’s not my responsibility to help somebody who isn’t good enough to take care of themselves, so just kick them out,” solutions. If nothing else, that latter kind (if you consider it a solution at all) just really isn’t at all creative. Humans are defined by their creativity. That’s where civilization comes from in the first place. If we can’t find creative solutions to our problems, then we aren’t living up to our potential. Civilization really is a great thing, and we take it for granted, forgetting that we built this. All of us together, century after century, we created it like a world-wide work of art. We have a responsibility for this civilization--to maintain it, improve it, make it serve us all better. If the civilization we build cannot give all its citizens a life better than that of the most primitive tribes that once traveled from place to place, living in tents, hunting and gathering for subsistence, then that civilization has failed.
[i] Many homeless people have jobs part-time, or even full-time, but without a home, they have trouble getting references with which to qualify for renting an apartment.
[ii] In which, by the way, he proposes instituting a social security program.
[iii] Thank-you, no. I will not put the word civilized in quotes. Neither Thomas Paine nor I am denigrating the value or humanity of the American natives. By civilization, Paine means the improvement of the natural environment such that it enables more people to gather together and build on one-another’s ideas. Those improvements are the private property of the improvers, and private property is the basis of civilization. Without it, we would all go around digging up our own roots to gnaw and grubs to eat. Those native people had a level of civilization that met their needs although it was not civilization on Paine’s terms. Paine saw civilization as a good thing, and I agree with him.
[iv][iv] I have no idea whatsoever what that would come to in today’s dollars, but it was, apparently, enough to enable a young person to buy a small farm or business.
[v] And not merely job training but also distributive liberal arts education which is crucial to an educated citizenry who are able to understand and evaluate the issues that affect the country. An informed citizen also needs to know when it is time to consult a more knowledgeable person. Not merely to trust to the government or to the wealthy, but to actually investigate new ideas.