Yucky Framing: “Cracking Down” on Homelessness

According to the Washington Post, members of the Trump administration are in California where they toured an unused FAA facility with a view towards converting it into housing for the homeless.

You can argue about the administrations motivations for this move, its ability to address the problem, the wisdom of using an FAA facility and so on, but finding a place for people who cannot afford homes seems like a worthy enough goal.

What struck me about the newspaper coverage, however, was how this project was described. Trump is pushing for “a major crackdown” on homelessness, the report said.

It is not a “plan to help,” “an anti-poverty initiative” or “a major effort.” No, it is a “crackdown.”

This is not the kind of language we generally use when referring to people who have suffered setbacks and need help. You would not be likely to “push for a major crackdown” on people losing their homes to foreclosure, or a “crackdown” on people not earning enough to pay their medical bills, or a “major crackdown” on people being laid off from their jobs.

By calling it a “crackdown” we’re being asked to see homeless people through a criminal lens. This makes the issue not how we can address the underlying issues and the system that leaves so many people unable to afford a roof over their heads to a problem of these people annoying those of us with homes by sleeping in places that we would enjoy more without their presence. Put another way: the problem is not that they have no place, it is that they’re in our public space.

I find myself thinking of that famous Anatole France line “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Of course, having people sleeping rough in public spaces, or camped in tent cities, poses many complex problems for both the homeless and the people who have other uses for those spaces. The question is, is criminality the best and most useful way to frame and address the problem?

 

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