The Slums We Don’t Want to Acknowledge

Americans, myself included, were jarred this week by two large bank failures, invoking memories of both the Great Depression and the 2008 economic crash. The news and the Biden Administration has breathed a sigh of relief, largely reporting that an economic crash has been averted.


While the stock market might be ok right now, what about the people living in the United States? A study by the Poor People’s Campaign revealed that, before the pandemic, in 2019, 43.5% of Americans were poor and low income. Nearly half our population. 


We don’t know statistically how much this has worsened since then, but we do know that the pandemic pushed many people out of their homes and we also know that the cost of living is so high right now that even more stable income families are feeling its sting. 


If you want to find accurate statistics on homelessness in this country, it is nearly impossible. Counties use point in time surveys that are then submitted to state and federal departments; that is, they have a team of volunteers who count the number of people they encounter who are homeless in a single day. Anyone who has worked in homeless services knows that this is nowhere near the number of people who are actually homeless in any community.


I think one of the reasons the U.S. bases its statistics in ineffective counts is a symptom of how our government does not want to acknowledge reality. 


Just because the stock market has not crashed again does not mean that the people of the United States are not experiencing conditions that mirror the Great Depression. The economy might be ok on top, but down below, where people live, conditions are dire. 


Since the 1980s, when the U.S. government of both parties adopted neoliberalism, the social safety net has been steadily dismantled, and homelessness has grown exponentially. Most West coast cities have declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness at some point in the last decade. 


Last time I was in Mexico, a group of organizers from a slum above Nogales told me a story. Thousands of people were living there, in shacks, without electricity or running water. When the president was due to visit, the city of Nogales invested in gallons upon gallons of colorful paint, enough for each person to paint the wall of their shack that faced the city. They did nothing to invest in a solution for the real issues people faced; they instead spent money on paint to cover up just how bad conditions were.


Cities and towns in the U.S. are crueler. They invest in sweeps, for similar reasons: they don’t want to see the mess. Just last week, in Aberdeen, the city voiced its concerns about sanitation and garbage and bulldozed all the structures and tents of an encampment. Many people had structures they built out of pallets and lumber to give them some safety, warmth, and security. After the city had taken everything, they gave people new tents, in the middle of winter, and patted themselves on the back for their generosity. 


The local paper interviewed a few residents and Shauna said; “They worked day and night on those. Our blood, sweat and tears goes into whatever we built… They say we’re homeless, well, we’re not, until you guys take our homes. We build our homes, we try to have a home.”


We don’t want to acknowledge it: but we have been in the middle of a second great depression for quite some time.


Millions of people are trying to build shacks all over the United States and getting run out of every spot they stop in. 


In the Great Depression, they called them Hoovervilles. 


But the U.S. does not want to acknowledge that we are right back there, right now.


The stock market might be ok, the banks might survive for another week. The wealthiest of this country are certainly making plenty of money. Capitalism is doing precisely what it is supposed to and, on the top, all is uneasily well. 


But the poorest are hungry and houseless and their numbers are only growing. The safety nets put in during the Great Depression and during the War on Poverty are largely gone, with few exceptions. Capitalism needs a reserve labor force of unemployed people to function, but there are no provisions for them in any way. They are not even allowed to live in a shack in peace.


Last time I was in the grocery store, people were begging for people to buy them food in the aisles. Property crime is through the roof, because people are desperate. 


What is shocking, and has never ceased to be shocking to me, is the way that politicians act like this reality does not exist. With the GOP hurling toward fascism, and the Democrats unwilling to roll back their neoliberal policies, the poor are left to build shack after shack on a riverbank and wait for local cities and towns to bulldoze them down.  


We didn’t avert a new depression this week. For the poor, we are in the middle of one.