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Housing the Homeless

Live from Death Row
by Mumia Abu-Jamal |
January 1, 2000
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The following is one in a regular series of commentaries by Mumia Abu Jamal from SCI Greene Prison

The great French writer, Anatoli Franz, once wrote, "The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

As the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the NASDAQ reach daily record levels and as every major media outlet boasts about the booming economy, the problem of homelessness abounds. A recent TV network report claimed that in New York City alone, over 400,000 people were millionaires and that a bare handful of city residents have annual incomes that exceed that of several nations.

In the midst of this unprecedented wealth, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, lies hollow, soul-devouring poverty, and even homelessness. In a response that gives a whole new meaning to the term draconian, New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced the city's plans to toss thousands of women, children and men out of city-run shelters and into cold wintry New York City streets.

Those found to be homeless in the streets will find a new place to stay, Rykers Island Prison. And to those who dare seek refuge in the shelters, they are forced to work in what is essentially slave labor, or their children will be snatched away from them and placed in foster homes.

Giuliani, in classic autocrat fashion, has criminalized homelessness.

With a small-minded nastiness of more prison warden than political leader, Giuliani has chosen to banish or browbeat the homeless. Banish them from the streets or to browbeat them into accepting jobs that no one else wants, under threat of prison, or under the fear of the seizure of one's child. For these homeless poor this is not an economic boom but a time of griping terror.

If homelessness is a crime, it is one committed by a system that does not fairly distribute social wealth, does not educate poor youth, nor provide decent social services. In a nation where capital is the greatest possible attainment, poverty is the greatest possible offense. To the ruthless El Duce, Giuliani, the homeless poor are to be put in prison for daring to mar city streets. And better a jail cell than a homeless shelter, for there, one feeds the prison industrial complex.

This is Rudy's job application to the ruling class, as he gives reign his to unbridled ambition. But there's a malevolent method to Rudy's madness, for as Mayor of the capitol of capital, the interests of big business are paramount. It was these interests that pushed for so-called welfare reform, meaning the abolition of welfare, and are pushing now the slave labor angle on the homeless.

Why? Well, scholars Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in their book, The New Class War, made that point about welfare, which strengthened the hand of labor. They wrote, "If the desperation of the unemployed is moderated by the availability of various benefits, they will be less eager to take any job on any terms." In short, there is an emerging recognition from analysts of all political persuasions that the income maintenance programs have weakened capital's ability to depress wages, especially by means of manipulating the relative numbers of people searching for work.

In effect, These programs have altered the terms of struggle between business and labor.

As a result, unemployment has lost some of it's terror, both for the unemployed and for those currently working. With those programs now gone or going, the terrors represented by the homeless serve to discipline and curb an anxious working class which is precisely what Rudy means to do.

From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu Jamal.