Voices from the Occupation
The Homeless and the Hungry – Modern Day Outlaws
I heard something on the radio last night which made me furious. It wasn’t Diane Abbott…it was the news that Hungary has outlawed homelessness. It is now a criminal offence, to find yourself without a home in Budapest. The Occupy Movement exists to be the amplified human megaphone of sanity, in the context of a world gone mad with a bloodlust for ‘making it’ and victim blaming.
This article discusses the Hungary situation, together with further examples from the UK and how we need to radically alter our conversation, if we want to live in a transformed world where nightmares like this are distant memories.
Guilty of Being Skint
The story seemed so absurd, that when I awoke this morning ready to write about it, I wondered if I had simply dreamt it. During my fact checking, it not only proved true, but worse. When the story started, I assumed that it was part of a drive to prevent homelessness: Outlaw Homelessness like a War on Poverty. However, this is not the case. Hungarian capital Budapest has circa 10,000 homeless people attempting to survive in it. The Conservative government have declared this too much for Budapest to bear, and therefore banned it. The law has been passed. It’s implications? If you are found homeless in Hungary you get a warning. If found again, you get a fine of £384 and/or prison.
Now, I’m no fortune teller – but I’m happy to predict that this ludicrous law will be about as effective at stopping homelessness as making short skirts illegal would stop rape.
People are not on the streets of Budapest, freezing and starving to death, because of some legal loophole. People find themselves on the streets for all sorts of reasons. Many are the most vulnerable members of our society, homeless because they couldn’t find a place in the world we built. The addicted, people with learning difficulties, the disabled, those fleeing devastation at home elsewhere in the world, the mentally ill. Then there are people who fall into none of the above, who perhaps once passed the mumbling homeless man on the street corner, irritated by his incessant reminder that all is not well in the world. Then, living from payday to payday, suddenly found themselves on the other side of the divide. How long does it take to look that shabby? For people to stop opening doors for you? To fail to stop and check if you are OK if you are crying – because you are clearly too far gone already? To step over you, as you shiver in your sleeping bag?
Homeless people are not a species separate from those with homes. People aren’t born with a homeless gene. Anyone who finds themselves, for whatever reason, unable to pay for it – doesn’t get a home. End of story. There are safety nets, and they have holes in, and not everybody gets caught.
How Very Dare You be Disadvantaged?
For Free Marketeers, Neo-liberals and Libertarians alike – it is not ‘our’ job to put a safety net up in the first place. Each person should be free to be responsible for their own destiny and that’s that. It’s that good old fashioned ‘a real man makes his own luck’ sort of thinking. The benefit of viewing the world this way if you have money and others don't, is that you deserve it, and they dont. Nothing to do with you, that famine, or that housing shortage, or all those other poor and destitute. They had the same opportunity you did, they just blew it.
This argument is so fundementally bogus that sometimes it is not even clear where to start in deconstructing it. Firstly, anyone who thinks the world today is an even playing field must have an attack of the crazy eye. The game is rigged.
So, it’s not just Hungary. It’s everywhere. And in order to perpetuate this myth, the real and unignorable problems - (like homelessness in Hungary) get thrown into a seemingly lively, but blind debate - inevitable resulting in botched 'solutions' which almost always have the victim as culprit.
Stop Paying Johnny Foreigner
This morning's news cycle was full of the idea that provision of oversees aid should be attached to conditions on the country recieving the aid – such as privatisation, trade liberalisation, oh and human rights. A plethora of eager comments and calls in crying out ‘We should be spending this money at home’, and ‘why are we paying for those mad mullahs to hate us?’. Ofcourse, anyone who had the chance to pick up a book on the matter of overseas aid, would know that once again, this is victim blaming with no context.
This idea is as old as aid. In fact, after the colonial period, (let’s pretend for a moment it ended) the IMF and World Bank were established to provide 'crisis' loans and loans for ‘reconstruction and development’. The idea was to turn the old colonies into liberal democracies. However, rather quickly, the established economies of the world realised they were onto a loser. What they needed were the resources and the low cost labour they were used to from their colonies, and just enough of the world wealthy enough to buy things.
The mercenary lending practices of these banks is infamous; eye watering rates of interest and conditions which have established the so called first, second and third worlds. The IMF imposes StructuralAdjustment Programmes on it’s debtors, effectively over riding any attempt at democracy. Yes, you can have this loan – but you will need to sell off all of your public services, slash public spending, let foreign investors buy up your land…oh and don’t open this one up to a vote. What then happens? The obvious, more people in the country fall into poverty as they lose their jobs, they can't afford to send their children to private school and the state can no longer afford to run an education system, health is privatised so people start dying of treatable illnesses – and you have a call for foreign aid to help educate the children, heal the sick and feed the starving. Countries get decemated. Hollowed out for their resources. First Africa, then Latin America..and now they're coming for Europe.
There would be no need for the aid, if this cycle was stopped. Original loans have been paid back multiple times over – this debt is a racket. It is called The Debt Trap.
Some figures for you. Between 1982 and 1990 $927bn was loaned from rich countries, to poor ones – but $1,345bn was paid back in debt service alone.[i] Furthermore, the debtor states began the 1990’s 60% more in debt that they were in 1982.[ii] By 1997, world debt had grown to over $2.2trillion, with $250bn paid in interest to creditor nations that one year.
The IMF is the wonga.com of the international economy. Except Wonga didn’t nick all your stuff in the first place, then give you a loan to try and start buying it back.
But ofcourse, the corporate media isn’t having that debate. We are supposed to argue about the conditions to attach to our benevolent foreign aid. A word to the wise, it might be considerably easier for citizens across the world to focus on addressing human rights issues and equality if they weren’t subordinated by tyrants and dictators whose sole purpose is to keep those repayments coming our way.
Once again, we don’t look at the problem and blame the victims.
People Are Living Too Long
There have also been a rash of stories recently in the UK, scape-goating old people for just about every economic woe we have. First, there are too many pensioners and we can’t afford them – so they need to pay more, work for longer and get less. Then, a report by the Intergenerational Foundation told us that the housing crisis was down to these pesky old timers living in houses which were ‘too big’ and were therefore off limits to young families. That’s right, it’s not a property bubble. It’s not that all the council houses were sold off to bribe some working class people into thinking they were Tories. It’s nothing to do with extortionate house prices and unachievable deposits. No.
As people get to the age where they have worked for perhaps 50 years, they are overnight made redundant. If you have a recognised job – good. If you fall into any bracket outside of that, for whatever reason – bad.
There are always particular points of shame for every generation, where the following one looks back and says 'how did they let that happen?'. For our generation, one will certainly be our treatment of the elderly. We have made battery hens illegal, but battery old people persist - sitting in chairs pointed at daytime television in souless nursing homes, or shivering in their own cold homes unable to afford to put the heating on, struggling to care for their partners as their carer services are scrapped due to 'austerity', malnourished as their meals on wheels is service is abandoned, terrified to go to the shops incase they get mugged for the change in their wallet. A whole generation which paid its taxes, arrives at the point which they may make some use of the investment only to find the world has forgotten their contribution and now sees them as an unwanted and unnecessary expense.
I don't know about you, but I found my grandparents really useful while I was growing up. They provided me with a personal history which I could listen to, learn from, critique and make my own way on the back of. They worked, and then they retired and then they worked again as my grandparents. They owed me nothing.
Again....this is not up for dicussion. It's their fault they're too old and useless to be anything other than a burden on the state.
So how about the debate about restructuring our economy to work with the demographics we have, rather than start blaming our demographic reality for our broken economy. The economy is there to serve us, not the other way round. Our current approach is as absurd as solving the problem of your shoes being too tight, by chopping off your toes. It is the shoe which needs to fit the foot, not the foot the shoe.
A Little Bit of Thought Goes a Long Way
It seems to me that much of the issue we have right now is a lack of critical thinking, imagination and empathy. One of the things which struck me hardest when I first arrived on an Occupy Camp, was the freedom to find my way of contributing – and to have that recognised and valued no more or less than anyone else’s.
So much contribution in our world is just not valued, because it doesn’t register as a financial value. If you can’t or don’t want to spend your life doing a job, arriving at a place at an agreed time, in an agreed outfit, leaving at an agreed time, and behaving in an agreed manner in exchange for an agreed wage, you are unemployed.
Being a childminder is a career, being a mother isn’t. Being a farmer is a career, growing your own food in an allotment isn’t. Being a social worker is a career, being a primary carer isn’t. I know a lot of people without jobs, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t work.
From Hungary’s homeless, to UK pensioners, to the next vulnerable group we choose to hang the responsibility for the current uncertainty and fear in the world upon – the underlying truth remains. We built a world that doesn’t work, and now it’s got so bad it is harder to ignore it. People don’t want to see the homeless man picking food out of the bin, or the lonely old woman, or the fly covered African child or the hoodies on the street, or the tent cities. It’s like a constant poke in the side – things aren’t working, what are you going to do about it? People want to keep their eyes averted, keep what they’ve got and ‘just chill’.
Well tough. We need you. For a society which spends so much time paying lip service to ‘self reliance’ we seem to be far too keen to have someone else – the government, the free market, the Occupy Movement – solve this for us. The situation is such, that no one really knows how to make it better or what to do next. That’s the reality. So politicians make stupid knee jerk policies, and many people pretend like nothing is happening.
A whole other group are looking around and saying – ok, we need to think this through. There is a breakdown, at a global level, with local impacts. Whether it’s homelessness, unemployment, fraud and corruption, your local school, library or hospital closing, pension cuts, racism, sexism, ageism, domestic violence, sexual violence, drugs, politics, government, anarchy, consensus, listening, being heard, talking, love, economics, ecology, war, peace, ego, competition, cooperation…millions of people around the world are discussing openly and earnestly how we got here, what our world could look like, and how we want to build it.
This is so much bigger than Banking. We are taking on ourselves, and by extension, the world. Everyone is invited. In this simple act, we can stop blaming the victims, and start creating a world worthy of our collective imagination.