What is it about America and many of its people that makes them blind to the suffering of the least fortunate? Whether they are the refugees that have no other option but to leave the war zones made intolerable by US arms sales or they are the people in our own country that capitalism has no use for, many Americans just want to pretend they don’t exist. And what better way to do that than by forcibly removing them from our field of vision as people drink their $5 coffees and try to climb the corporate ladder.
What happens to human beings who have to constantly ignore the suffering of human beings to go about their business?
A recent proposal by former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, my father, to forcibly relocate a portion of San Francisco’s citizens who happen to lack a home to live indefinitely on a Navy ship should have us looking deep within ourselves at our own conscience. For how we treat the most vulnerable among us is how we define ourselves as a species.
Tired of seeing the desperation on the faces of these human beings in need day in and day out, many San Franciscans have taken on the tried and true method of reducing human beings to mere labels such as “the homeless”, “derelicts,” or “undesirables.” Instead of seeing the human being with real and underserved human needs, people see the label, and it is far easier to get rid of a “bum” than it is a human being that is just like you.
Let us not forget that all human beings are social beings. We are all hard-wired with mirror neurons that make us feel the suffering (or joy) of another. When we see the suffering of people on the street, we, too, feel their pain whether we acknowledge it in our conscious minds or not. And who wants to feel that pain everyday as they go about their lives?
But rather than do the hard, personal work as citizens to organize and address the needs of the homeless population not only for a roof and other basic human needs but also for friendship and connection, we have proposals like putting the homeless on a military ship “until there is enough permanent housing,” that – let’s face it – if it were going to be built, then it would have by now during this unprecedented time for economic growth in the Bay Area.
Can you imagine forcibly taking homeless people from the street and making them sleep in a room like this with a variety of health and mental issues?
My father knows better. In fact, I’ve seen him do better. I’ve seen him try to help those in need by hiring them to wash his car or do other chores around his house. Many times, people really don’t want a handout. They want to feel useful. They want to matter to someone. My father looks them in the eye and sees them as the human beings they are.
There are roughly 7,000 people lacking a home in San Francisco, a city with over 830,000 inhabitants. That’s one homeless person for every 120 people that live in the city. Somewhere in that math is a solution that doesn’t involve forcibly moving people anywhere against their will.
While it is commonplace in our society, it is actually very unnatural for human beings to have power over other human beings. Where that power exists, it ought to be used with care and consideration for the needs and feelings of the powerless who have long been forgotten by a society still hellbent on creating economic growth at all costs. These costs now include our humanity as we discuss ways to remove the suffering of others from our sight. “Out of sight, out of mind,” the saying goes.
Human beings without a home are still human beings. Let us not forget that. They have families just like you. They have feelings just like you. They have desires and dreams just like you. They are scared, vulnerable, and in desperate need of your generosity and kindness, even if all you are able to do is stop for a moment, look into their eyes and say with sincere compassion, “I see you. You matter to me.”
As social beings, the worst form of punishment is isolation.
On the systemic level, can anyone else see how proposals that forcibly move people are like treating the symptom rather than the cause? The truth is our present economic system is not doing what economic systems are supposed to do – meet the needs of its people. No matter how much additional economic growth the city of San Francisco or the United States as a whole creates, very little of it will reach the people who need it the most.
So what is the solution? We could start by demanding as a nation that our resources be used to provide basic needs for everyone. Perhaps, in the beginning, it might take the form of a guaranteed basic income for every citizen. But first we must be willing to acknowledge that the present system just isn’t working. As technological unemployment kicks into overdrive with driverless cars and 3-d printing making obsolete 4 million drivers and 14 million construction workers, we will need an entire fleet of ships to deal with the issue.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to some of the most creative minds in the world. Facebook, Google and others have changed the way people interact and communicate around the world. They are not only companies. They are think tanks, constantly dreaming up new ways to change the world. Perhaps instead of funding and creating the next consumer gadget that sells millions of units and creates ever more wealth for those who already have it, they can put this amazing intellect towards the goal of reducing the suffering of the least among us. I promise at the end of the day it will feel a hell of a lot better.
What about a global gift economy?
The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.