Kip Yost: We have met the homeless, and they are (increasingly) us

Tax cuts, high costs and criminalizing poverty conspire to push people into homelessness.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Local architect Jeff White, stands on an underused site on the west side of Salt Lake City, as he holds a model showing what his tiny home community might look like, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

It was encouraging to hear Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall admit that another permanent shelter for the homeless is necessary. Although anybody paying attention knew that was true back in 2019. The tiny-home village plan is also an idea that has done well elsewhere and affords dignity and safety where camping is chaos.

But this whole homeless thing started a long time ago when the “greed is good” Reagan era dumped the mentally ill into the streets, while at the same time building a trillion-dollar-a-year military and intelligence perpetual war machine. This made billionaires out of the weapons makers while bankrupting things like education, housing and health care. We built smarter bombs at the expense of smarter children.

Then there was the whole $5.6 trillion Bush tax giveaway to the rich, which promised us that we’d all be fine because it would “trickle down” to the rest of us. Which, of course, it never did and never will. More and more tax cuts for the wealthy followed as ever more conservative trickery and propaganda from a right-wing media machine works 24/7 to sell the idea that only more and more extreme conservatism is the answer to everything. Making things like accessible education, health care and decent wages just evil ideas of the Marxist/socialist/communist left.

Local, state and federal governments, now increasingly starved of the tax revenue that once enabled them to function, by necessity turned to massive increases in punitive fines and fees simply to get by. These punitive fines and fees disproportionately affect the poor and lower middle class.

Meanwhile, loan shark operations, calling themselves “Payday Loan” or “Title Loan” outfits sprang up everywhere, offering quick loans to anybody and everybody at a mere 400% interest. You can put the title to your vehicle up to pay off some devastating expense that you didn’t plan on, and then, once you’ve lost your vehicle, what then? Now you can’t get to work, look for work or simply get by. Stories of these kinds of disasters play out again and again and again among the homeless.

I know, I was there. Many, many times the disaster that put someone on the pathway to homelessness was an encounter with the legal system. Forcing them to find some way to pay the judge when they were barely scraping by in the first place.

With spiraling housing costs and stagnant wages, credit ratings suffered and people ended up in bankruptcies that because of conservative policies fail to discharge the predatory credit card debt and student loans that choked off their ability to get by in the first place.

Corporate apartment conglomerations build and build and build, making the most beautiful showplace club houses with magnificent crystal-clear swimming pools and gorgeous amenities like climbing walls, gymnasiums and hot tubs that look absolutely amazing. An apartment is only a year’s lease, with first and last month’s rent up-front plus a hefty security deposit. Just don’t ask where you’re going to put everything you own in the tiny little apartment, they show you. Need more space? Take a look at the two-bedroom unit, it’s only a few hundred more but it’s a whole 800 square feet! So, you’re likely paying somebody for storage as well.

Research shows us that most of us are only two missed paychecks from disaster. So, when your disaster comes, be it a layoff, legal trouble, car trouble, catastrophic illness, etc., they can then hit you with a three-day eviction notice and then get another renter and another equivalent to 4 or 5 months rent and deposit and the show goes marching on.

Sound grim? It is. There is a book called “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American city” by Matthew Desmond that examines all of these sources of homelessness, and they exist everywhere. Every American city has the same mechanisms that drive people ever deeper into poverty and desperation.

And don’t forget the failed drug war that put more Americans in prisons and jails than any other country on the planet.

So, these heartwarming gestures to help out our homeless neighbors are a step in the right direction, because, to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the homeless, and they are (increasingly) us.

Kip Yost

Kip Yost is a formerly homeless person now living with his wife in an apartment in Salt Lake City.

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