Over the last week or so, stickers have appeared around town defacing anti-panhandling signs. They’ve brought the issues of panhandling, the city’s treatment of the homeless and vandalism back into people’s mouths. The media, the city and managers of the homeless have responded with predictable outrage and disappointment (hoping others will as well): “How could someone do this?” “It’s senseless and a waste of money.” But most coverage and online conversations have entirely missed the last few years of the homeless’s attempts at self-organization and autonomy and the city’s repressive response.
The following is a brief summary of our ideas about this (in case you don’t want to read the whole article), followed by our elaboration in case you’re curious about a deeper critique of different powers at play.
1. In truly Orwellian fashion, the city must mask all of its attempts to disappear homeless people by referring those attempts as “helping the homeless.”
2. The media must ignore or condemn the message (that the city is killing the homeless) because it threatens their pal, the State. And it must ignore or denounce the way the message is told (putting a sticker on the sign), because it is a threat to the media itself.
3. People who have made profitable careers by “helping the homeless,” in addition to their everyday efforts to prevent a class war, echo the city’s attempts to repress the homeless and stop any form of homeless autonomy.
4. The city didn’t decide to start harassing the homeless last year, and people have resisted that repression before the sticker. In addition to the day-to-day bullshit homeless people have to face (freezing to death, dying of heat exhaustion, starvation, where to sleep, being harassed by police, yuppies, sports fans, patronizing social workers), all their attempts to improve their lives on their own terms (sometimes outside of the logic of work and capitalism) are crushed by the city.
5. Leave the homeless alone unless your supporting their own efforts to self-organize, making genuine relationships with someone who happens to be homeless or attacking the efforts of the city and vigilantes to end the homeless.
The media must ignore or condemn the message (that the city is killing the homeless) because it threatens their pal, the State. And it must ignore or denounce the way the message is told (putting a sticker on the sign), because it is a threat to the media itself.
At first glance, the sign may be alarming. Is someone actually saying the city hasn’t gone far enough in its repression of the homeless? But at second glance, the message is clear: the city’s policy for homeless people is making it impossible for them to exist. The city is slowly killing the homeless.
If it’s not hard to understand the vandal’s intent, why does the media misrepresent it? Because like all bodies of power, anything that threatens it must be absorbed to strengthen it, ignored, misrepresented and/or repressed.
These journalists presumably have journalism or acting degrees – they know how the English language is supposed to work. There’s no misunderstanding the statement: “Join the City’s ‘Final Solution’ / Homeless Onto Trains to Auschwitz”. The sticker is clearly drawing attention to city’s discreet (and not so discreet) and murderous intentions for the homeless, and the media can’t let that public secret be talked about so openly.
The original sign is a disgusting lie. Criminalizing panhandling – one of the few sources of income and sustenance for many homeless people – and encouraging people to police the homeless does not and will never help homeless people, though that is exactly what the sign claims to do. By altering the sign, the original message is flipped on its head and its real nature is exposed: by harassing homeless people’s livelihood and chasing them further out of the public eye, the city and vigilantes are making it impossible for them to live. This is another form of the slow death to which the city of St. Louis has condemned the homeless.
If intentionally misconstruing the vandal’s intent were the only lie the media vomits that would be infuriating enough, but they go a step further by trying to portray those harassing the homeless as victims. Those criminalizing homelessness cry foul, that now they’ll have to spend more time, money and energy putting up new signs. If all those resources are such a concern and the signs so disliked, they never say why they don’t simply stop putting them up (and the media never asks). Or, more to the point, why put them up in the first place. But we know the city’s intentions for the homeless and ask only rhetorically.
In addition to screaming what the original sign had whispered, the sticker serves a second subversive purpose, and one that threatens the media directly: that there are channels outside of the media and Facebook comments in which we can have a voice.
Since the sanctity of the media and property reign supreme, we’ll likely never turn on the news and hear, “A great new way to communicate your passions for life and frustrations with the world is sweeping the city: vandalism! It would appear that some area residents have turned paint, stickers, posters and projectiles into a cool new way to tell us what they really think.” Despite vandalism being one our greatest tools for expression, the media will, of course, never endorse it for many reasons, but specifically, it would put them out of business.
The last remark would be funnier too, if the opposite weren’t always true. Anytime someone does bother to call bullshit on the world around us in a public way, the media is there to parade one person after another in front of the camera to condemn it and voice the opposite. “Why would someone do something like this?” “It makes me sick to think about.” “I don’t know why someone would call the police murderers, they’re here to help us.” etc, etc, etc, vomit. Who is brave enough or doesn’t give a fuck enough to get in front of the cameras and say “that was fucking cool. I hated those signs.” Such a person would also have to be naïve enough to trust the media relaying that message – a hard combination to find.
No, there are acceptable ways to voice grievances, the media reassures, ones that are formulaic, easily neutralized and forgotten. The media must keep things just as they are or talk about the world without saying anything.
(If it is indeed true, that the city can find no cheaper way to repress homeless people than at $100 a sign, then it would mean that one need only a few dollars to spend on a can of spray paint, a mindfulness of security cameras and a few minutes to alter or deface a sign: costing those harassing the homeless money, time and energy and sending a powerful message in response to the intended one of the sign.)
The holocaust committed by fascists against the peoples of Europe was a horrendous atrocity and one of (sadly) many scars on the history of humanity. The problem is, it’s one of the only genocides we’re taught about and can safely talk about and so is often called upon as a way to talk to others in an accessible way. If we taught ourselves how to spot, criticize and combat hierarchy, authority, abuse and how they control our lives, Nazi comparisons would likely occur far less. But people in power, for obvious reasons, have no intentions of helping that happen.
Do you agree with the vandals intention, but don’t like the actual wording? Should the sticker have said, “these signs hurt, not help the homeless” or do think they simply should not exist in the first place? Great, go make that sticker and deface the sign, or rip that fucker down entirely. And to those of you who, without thinking, type some Facebook comment without ever intending to think about it again: you add to the murmur of the city that keeps us in place, in misery, constantly treading concrete to stay alive, and we say to you, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
THERE ARE PLENTY OF OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO ACTUALLY HELP…” or FUCK “PLACES FOR PEOPLE”
As always, the media and others in power have sought to delegitimize efforts to draw attention to the issue of homelessness by pointing toward the major non-profit organizations in the city as the only “legitimate” or “reasonable” means of helping homeless people.
To quote the RFT: “Indeed, there are plenty of options available to actually help St. Louis’ homeless, including Places for People. There are many more emergency shelters, soup kitchens and outreach groups that could use your help.”
Places for People, The St. Patrick’s Center—if you are interested in helping homeless people, give money to pay the salaried workers of these organizations instead of having any meaningful interaction with a homeless person yourself.
Of course, Places for People director Joe Yancey, eager to play the role of lapdog for the rich and powerful, speaks against unmediated communication on the issue of homelessness, encouraging us instead to contribute to his salary by giving to his organization. (His salary, by the way, was $152,659 in fiscal year 2012, pointing toward the serious Orwellian doublespeak involved in the label “nonprofit organization.” They could much more accurately be called “businesses”).
These organizations present themselves as committed to “helping” or even “serving” homeless people, run by people motivated only by benevolence and care. Their existence is promoted as demonstration that society is progressing toward greater justice and equality. Surely, the all-powerful, benevolent State and the non-profit industrial complex will together soon solve all of our problems. So when you’re walking from your meaningless job to the bar to the Cardinals game, just avert your eyes when you see that person on the corner asking for money. It’s all under control.
Starry-eyed, social-justice-oriented young twenty-somethings pouring from the halls of S.L.U., Wash U. and Webster, some with a genuine desire to live in a different world, are funneled toward these care industries by pressure to control and redirect their youthful idealism.
But the role of these organizations within capitalism has very little to do with a genuine desire to help others. Instead, they serve as a buffer between the homeless populations (which the capitalist economy needs in order to function) and the rest of the population. Without them, those experiencing the worst that capitalism has to offer may instead turn toward crime—directly attacking those with more power and wealth and taking back directly what they need to survive.
You can’t have a thriving downtown economy if you’ve got homeless people pulling yuppies out their Mercedes’ and stealing their Rolexes to buy food (or a hotel room or a High Life for that matter). That’s called class war and it’s what organizations like this exist to prevent.
They also exist to funnel the youthful idealism of those S.L.U., Wash. U. and Webster grads back into the system. Without these obvious, legitimate means of “making a difference” those actually eager to see a different world might find more direct, creative or conflictual means of doing so. The combination of these two populations (the homeless and those who want a different world) turning away from the false solutions could be potentially explosive.
And, as stated before, they create the illusion of progress that democracy so desperately needs in order to keep us loyally believing in its lies. As long as we can rest assured that The St. Patrick’s Center’s feedlots will fill everyone’s bellies with processed food three times a day, we can continue to enjoy our relative comfort without asking the question of why homelessness exists. Or even worse, whether we want to live in a world of work, power and control at all.
HOMELESS AUTONOMY AND THE CITY’S WAR AGAINST IT
For those of you unfamiliar with the city’s war on the homeless the last few years here are some highlights and anecdotal points that will helpfully put things like the sign vandalism into perspective.
If freezing in the winter, dying from heat exhaustion in the summer and suffering the blows of sports fans and the downtown business class weren’t enough, homeless people have to deal with their own efforts at self-organization being slandered, harassed and destroyed. Homeless people shouldn’t be synonymous with people who need help. Like any group of people living on the fringes of society, they likely just need to be left the fuck alone by the State and bleeding-heart liberals with disposable incomes. But the city officials, police and social workers can’t afford for homeless people to be self-sufficient in ways outside of work and capitalism.
In 2008 when dozens of homeless people made an encampment at the mouth of an old tunnel north of downtown and began to address their problems collectively, the city harassed them until in 2010 they relocated to the floodwall near the river. One would be hard-pressed to find a more out-of-the-way, invisible place for homeless people than a tunnel or down by the river, but, in 2012, the city eventually bulldozed their second encampment too.
Less formal places for the homeless, like Lucas (Hobo) Park, and the library right next to it, are constantly under the scrutiny of police, city officials and the downtown business and yuppie class.
A few years ago, in an effort to really prove what they meant by no loitering near the St. Patrick’s Center, city officials had homeless people’s belongings thrown into garbage trucks and destroyed. In a similar vein, the sidewalk outside Larry Rice’s homeless shelter had barricades permanently erected around the sidewalk last year to keep homeless people from existing in one of the few places left to them.
And in 2005, downtown yuppies and business owners began a campaign to turn Lucas Park into a dog park. A more disgusting analogy is hard to think of. Around this time anti-gentrification graffiti was common in the area (“Just because you live in a loft, doesn’t make you god”, “Die Yuppie Scum”, “Go back to West County”, etc) and on the day construction was supposed to begin a picnic against it and the “progress of the city” was held in Lucas Park. Although the effect of the graffiti and picnic are unclear, construction didn’t begin until 2008.
Graffiti and anti-gentrification, pro-homeless posters still speckle downtown, and Lucas Park is still a contested space. In an appalling example of this conflict, while a homeless girl and father where relaxing in Lucas Park, a yuppie’s dog took a shit next to the sleeping girl. When the father confronted the yuppie, the yuppie yelled racial slurs at him. In response, other homeless people joined in, with one hitting the yuppie with a piece of rebar. When police arrived, the father was arrested and nothing happened to the yuppie.
For those of us that hang out or work downtown, over-hearing yuppies, loft-dwellers and business-oweners referring to the homeless as “pests”, “rats” and “infestations” that need to be gotten rid of while they sip coffee or wine is far from uncommon.
Another horror story that comes to mind is that of Anna Brown, a homeless women arrested at a St. Louis hospital for making a scene as she demanded medical treatment. Police, mocking her cries for help, arrested her, and made her drag herself into her cell, where she died.
Just a few years before the proposed dog park, much of downtown and Washington Ave. were a ghost-town and home to the homeless. In the early stages of its gentrification, when homeless people were beginning to feel a new wave of harassment from the city, they had a march up and down Wash Ave. screaming, “We fired up! Won’t take it no more!” Similarly, when the first homeless encampment near the tunnel was facing eviction, homeless people marched from the tunnel to the doors of the office trying to evict them – the march even going so far as to try to force its way into the building.
In another beautiful moment, during a screening of a documentary about one of the riverfront homeless camps, Bill Siedhoff (reportedly the first person to report to the police the recent vandalism of the panhandling signs) was asked to stand in recognition for his work with the homeless. Immediately after standing, Bill, who had the encampment bulldozed, was met with screams of “Fuck you!” “Get the fuck out!” “You’re the reason people are homeless!” “What’s your house like Bill?! How nice is your house?!”, and so on.
The downtown Occupy encampment also served as a place for homeless people to live and organize their lives outside of the logic of the State and work. Shortly after Occupy’s eviction, Larry Rice and some homeless people tried to occupy a small strip of land near Vandeventer and I-44. Hardly a comfortable living space, the city immediately evicted it.
These aren’t freak occurences, they are the day to day functioning of the city in regards to the homeless. Whether it’s city officials, yuppies, police or businesses. If they could have their way, the homeless would not exist or be friendly, happy, clean caricatures.
Without the city’s intervention, there would be at least four homeless encampments right now, not to mention however many others those four would have inspired. This autonomous activity on the part of homeless people could have even led to squatting abandoned and forgotten buildings in order to meet their needs and desires better. There might also be a more noticeable, less isolated homeless culture and homeless protest culture, but the city must stop homeless people’s efforts to self-organize as quickly as they appear.
“VANDALIZING SIGNS…DOESN’T HELP ST. LOUIS’ HOMELESS”
Of course. We live in a world divided by class and in a system that desperately needs an underclass and an unemployed class to keep functioning from one day to the next. Do you really want to live in a world without homeless people? Then we’re going to need to destroy this current one.
For capitalism to function, there must be an available labor pool to respond to the ebbs and flows of the market. When business is good, the system must have workers available to hire to up production, to expand, to grow. When there is an ebb in the market, those same workers must be cut quickly to protect profits. Those operating on the bottom rung of the economy’s latter serve this function. They will always be there, they have to be. No amount of “coming together” to “serve the homeless community” better will ever “end homelessness”. This is an illusion that those in power feed us to keep us distracted and convinced that they are taking care of us.
Homelessness is a necessary condition within society for those who can’t or won’t submit to the logic of work and capitalism. Otherwise, who knows, they might start coming up with alternatives to this current world and fighting those that keep us shackled to it.
We can’t end homelessness, but we can do things to demonstrate our respect for homeless communities and to express solidarity for them when they are attacked. Over the years, homeless people in St. Louis have made numerous attempts to self-organize their lives and to demand their autonomy. These efforts have been relentlessly crushed by the city.
When the city strikes a blow against these populations—by destroying a thriving tent city, putting up signs criminalizing panhandling, killing or letting a homeless person die in jail, we can express our solidarity by attacking the efforts and physical manifestations of the city and vigilantes to harass and disappear the homeless.
Bravo to those clever and courageous enough to change those disgusting signs. We only dream of living in a world where such vandalism is the norm.