Sledgehammers, Shopping Carts, Flight Tickets, and Nutter

In a series of shocking displays that can be described as nothing short of bizarre, Democratic State Representative Tom Brower has recently undertaken an aggressive personal crusade against the epidemic of homelessness that has come to ravage his home state of Hawaii.  The disgruntled public official has taken to patrolling his district of Waikiki-Ala Moana, armed with a sledgehammer, which he uses to forcefully destroy shopping carts that have been left behind by members of the local homeless population.  Brower was apparently driven to take matters into his own hands amid the region’s escalating epidemic of homelessness, attempting to clean up one of the neighborhood’s “biggest eyesores” (as he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser): the remnants of vagabonds’ castaway luggage carriers.  While one can only surmise as to how effective the act of lashing out against an inanimate symbol of desolate poverty could be, the practice of attacking the symptoms of destitution–rather than the root cause–seems to have caught on among politicians from various other cities across the United States.

Brower (nicknamed the “Evil Miley Cyrus“) also admits to frequently waking up any sleeping vagrants that he finds lounging about throughout the city, bellowing orders such as, “Get your ass moving!” in an attempt to clear them off the streets.  Ironically, however, Brower insists that he never disturbs sleeping have-nots during nighttime hours, out of respect for their circumstances.  And there is quite a set of circumstances to be taken into consideration on Oahu, indeed: between 2005-2007, the homeless population of the island increased by a staggering 28.6% [1].  Homelessness is certainly becoming an urgent problem in Hawaii, and Brower’s measures are not the only actions that have been taken by government officials in an attempt to counteract the epidemic.

oneway

Another doomed attempt to combat the rapid increase in Hawaiian homelessness is scheduled to debut itself during Hawaii’s fiscal year of 2014.  Entitled the “Return to Home” program, this new government initiative will be providing one-way airline tickets to select destitute individuals, flying them back to the United States mainland in the hopes of reducing the island state’s population of more than 17,000 homeless people.  Critics say that the program could create the illusion to those seeking to take advantage of it that there will always be a guaranteed flight back to the continental U.S. waiting for them in the event that it becomes necessary to leave the island, but supporters of this new provision argue otherwise.  According to the project’s enthusiasts, only as many as 100 people per year will be eligible to participate in it, limiting the potential for its services to be taken advantage of. [2]

Similar methods of dealing with socio-economic challenges such as these have been observed recently in other American cities, as well.  In New York City, the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg has on occasion utilized a program which is not unlike Hawaii’s upcoming “Return to Home” program in order to combat its own epidemic of homelessness.  From 2007-2009, the city paid for the airline flights of 550 struggling families with the intention of aiding them in making their pilgrimage elsewhere, all in the hopes that they might settle down and live more comfortably in some other part of the world.  New York City’s Department of Homeless Services is in charge of coordinating these assisted excursions, whose annual expenses consume roughly $500,000 of the city’s yearly budget.   Supporters of the initiative extoll that the program is far more affordable than the alternative option, which is to provide housing for these families through the city’s system of homeless shelters at an annual cost of approximately $36,000 per family.  Apparently, it is simply cheaper for the city to send such disparate people elsewhere and forget about them entirely, showcasing yet another depiction of the government’s recent inclination to address merely the symptoms of debilitating poverty (in this case with the intention of saving city money), rather than remedying its underlying causes. [3]

passport

In Philadelphia, the so-called “City of Brotherly Love,” neither shopping carts, nor homeless individuals themselves have become the focus of such eradication efforts by local officials.  Instead, the city’s own destitution crisis has prompted an attempt at a different sort of extrication, altogether.  In March of 2012, the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, announced that a ban on the feeding of homeless people would soon go into effect at any of the city’s outdoor locations that generally draws a high level of pedestrian traffic.  Unconvincingly citing sanitation issues and a concern for the individual dignity of those receiving the food donations as being the primary motivation for passing the ban, Nutter declared:

“Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.” [4]

He went on to insist that every individual deserves the right to eat a proper meal in a comfortable, indoor setting, a belief which he proceeded to reiterate in numerous interviews:

“My motivation is not to exclude anyone.  I want a hungry person in need to know they can go to a clean, dry place.” [5]
The mayor’s spokespeople echoed similar sentiments, among them, Mark MacDonald, who spoke with USA Today on behalf of Nutter, claiming that the ban was aiming to force the homeless to go indoors to eat their meals in the hopes that they might become subjected to other health services (or so he alleged):
“This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere.  We think it’s a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant…The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street.” [6]
homeless-sign-1

At no point did Nutter or his representatives address the point that few individuals, if any, would rather starve on the street than eat a much-needed meal in an outdoor environment.  Nor did they offer to provide an indoor dining environment for the homeless, despite being so seemingly passionate about this detail.  This is comparable to the fact that at no point did Rep. Tom Brower address the fact that lashing out against shopping carts (or any other artifact common among the poor) would have absolutely no impact on reducing Hawaiian poverty levels.  Regardless of the empty gestures committed in either case, or by either of the two ultimately powerless political saps, the obvious truth of the matter remains unchangeable: homelessness doesn’t cease to exist simply because one of its many physical symptoms goes under attack from some desperate politician.  No individual or group of individuals can reduce the level of destitution in society simply by destroying a vagabond’s shopping cart, or by forcing him to eat indoors, or by purchasing him a plane ticket to some other faraway place–doing so may at most conceal some of the more obvious aspects of the economic suffering of a society, if even that.

While the outwardly freakish wrath being wielded by Rep. Tom Brower against both inanimate objects and the sleeping impoverished alike is simultaneously alarming, comical, and ultimately pathetic, the underlying motivation behind such outbursts is actually a relatively common theme among politicians nowadays.  Powerless to prevent the onward march of society towards escalating poverty and economic despair as the financial climate of the 21st century continues its downward spiral, desperate politicians like Brower, Bloomberg, and Nutter can only be expected to continue to do what is typical of elected officials in such times of social distress: lash out by passing laws, all of which are enforced with violence.

Whether on a scale of pitifully-channeled, simple-minded, and childish aggression directed toward an inanimate object–such as in Brower’s case–or in a more complex and sophisticated manner, involving the ill-conceived redistribution of wealth (as has been exhibited by Bloomberg and Nutter), politicians inevitably have only one card available for them to play: the use of force.  And (as has been demonstrated so conveniently by the outcome of Brower’s tantrums) beating a misplaced shopping cart with a sledgehammer does nothing to alter society’s level of poverty–if anything, it only makes the vagabond with little else to carry his cargo around in even poorer than he had been to start with.  Neither of these scenarios differs from one another with any measure of significance, in that respect.  Poverty is poverty, and force is force, and politicians are ultimately powerless to treat even the symptoms of poverty through such brutish means.  And if they are so unable to treat even the very symptoms of destitution, how could they ever possibly hope to cure the root cause of the condition itself–whether they choose to brandish either a sledgehammer or a scrawled edict to aid in the attempt?

Sources:

  1. N/A. “Hawaii lawmaker wages campaign against the homeless and their belongings with sledgehammer.”  Russia Today.  19 Nov. 2013. http://rt.com/usa/hawaii-sledgehammer-homeless-possessions-986/
  2. Wing, Nick.  “Hawaii ‘Return To Home’ Program Will Pay To Fly Homeless To The Mainland.”  Huffington Post.  25 Jul. 2013.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/25/hawaii-return-to-home-homeless_n_3653498.html
  3. Bosman, Julie.  “City Aids Homeless With One-Way Tickets Home.”  New York Times.  28 Jul. 2009.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/nyregion/29oneway.html?_r=1&
  4. Dunn, Mike.  Hunter, Walt.  “City To Ban Street-Corner Feedings Of Homeless.”  CBS Philadelphia.  14 Mar. 2012.  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/03/14/nutter-announces-ban-on-outdoor-feeding-of-homeless/
  5. Hill, Miriam.  “End to feeding homeless in city parks?”  Philly.com.  14 Mar. 2012.  http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/heardinthehall/publicfeeding.html?c=r
  6. Pearce, Matt.  “Homeless feeding bans: Well-meaning policy or war on the poor?”  11 Jun. 2012.  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/11/nation/la-na-nn-homeless-feeding-bans-20120611

Kensington’s Saga of Property Theft and Political Crooks

eminentdomain

In the city of Philadelphia, a group of property owners are rightfully outraged by the local government’s attempts to forcibly confiscate their rightfully-owned land through the use of eminent domain laws.  These property seizures are being conducted in order to build a proposed housing development project in the neighborhood of Philadelphia known as “Kensington,” an area which has become notorious for its poverty levels and high crime rates, despite the region’s burgeoning trend towards gradual gentrification.  This slow-moving increase in community conditions and home values has apparently prompted the project’s proposal, which seeks to stifle the area’s upward socio-economic shift by ensuring that low-income housing remain locally available to those who are unable to afford the rising prices that coincide with community improvement.

The proposed project, called “Tajdeed” (which is Arabic for “renewal”), would have the capacity to support up to 45 low-income families, replacing the various properties that already exist in the Kensington region.  The project is being funded through a private-public partnership between the city government, the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, and Conifer Realty LLC, a coalition of special interests that has been vehemently pushing for the completion of the housing project.  Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab-American Community Development Corporation, has expressed that he and his partners, “Look at this [housing project] as the last chance to maintain low and moderate income in this area.”

Apparently, Kreidie and his group feel as though total gentrification is a bad thing for an impoverished community because it increases property taxes, making it hard for poor families to afford to live there.  In response, Kreidie has been pursuing what he proclaims to be a “public good:” he and his organization are seeking to combat the natural economic evolution of the city’s neighborhoods by using government force to seize privately-owned properties and replace them with low-income housing projects, the development of which is to be funded significantly in part by government grants.

Yes, that’s right: he wants to keep certain areas of the poor neighborhoods poor in order to ensure that those with a low income can still afford to live in slums within that particular region.  What a hero.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez was another key contributor in pushing for the use of eminent domain to seize the properties in order to move forward with the Tajdeed project.  She shares an opinion about the neighborhood’s recent economic growth that is similar to Kreidie’s, and also wishes to stifle Kensington’s progress of gentrification and ensure that the neighborhood maintains its present status of debilitating impoverishment.  At a rally against the use of eminent domain in Kensington, she was quoted as saying that she, “doesn’t need consent,” to seize private property, and insisted that anything that is considered legal is therefore also moral.  In an interview with writer Solomon Jones, Sanchez made the following remarks:

“There is nothing more important that government can do… than to assure affordability and accessibility in the entire city…  You have to stop the gentrification by ensuring there’s affordability everywhere.”

That’s right, again.  We have to stop gentrification so that the poverty can stay within the community, rather than allow natural economic conditions to guide individuals of various financial statuses to the areas with costs of living more suitable for their levels of income.  Won’t that be great for the city and its local economy?

But wait: how will this marvelous feat of economic stabilization be conducted?  By use of government force, naturally, in the form of eminent domain laws (a fancy term for property theft used by the government to soften the blow of the crimes it commits)!

The use of eminent domain has absolutely exploded in popularity within the city of Philadelphia in just the last year alone.  In 2012, the City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (the city government’s division of property thieves) seized approximately 1,200 private properties from their rightful owners–a dramatic increase from the mere 100 cases of eminent domain use in the previous year, a number which seems miniscule by comparison.  The reason for the sudden drastic increase in eminent domain cases is likely the result of the grandfathering in of local eminent domain laws, which allowed the city to postpone adopting the state of Pennsylvania’s recently-changed policies regarding the acceptable use of eminent domain following a 2005 Supreme Court ruling.  This ruling, known as Kelo vs. City of New London, held that private redevelopment projects of “blighted” areas could be considered to fall within the realm of “public use” under the Fifth Amendment, and are therefore a legally-legitimate reason for the government to invoke eminent domain in order to allow for their construction.  Since the newly-modified Pennsylvania state laws are much more restrictive of the use of eminent domain, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority appears to have been scrambling to cram as many possible uses of property seizure laws into a single year as it could possibly process before the new laws could go into effect on January 1st, 2013.  And cram, they most certainly did, as is indicated by the dramatic difference in the number of annual eminent domain cases from each of the two years.

And now, in Kensington, that use of power to seize rightfully-owned property is being used against 19 property owners who are understandably angry about their local government’s tyrannical abuse of power.  Among them is Meletius Athanasiadis, who has been offered a mere $149,000 from the city in exchange for seven of his properties, which include among them six parking garages and one residential home, the tenants of which are now being threatened with displacement.  “Mel,” as he is called, along with the other victims of this tremendous violation of individual and property rights, was given little time to challenge the proceedings in court, and received notice of the impending property seizures just days before Christmas.  In addition to having received such short notice of the city’s intent to steal their land from them, Pennsylvania state law allows a window of only 30 days to contest eminent domain attempts (a condition that most of the Kensington property owners were unaware of at the time).  Since January 18th, their only option has been to negotiate with the government for financial compensation; they are no longer able to challenge the use of eminent domain against them and their properties.

Maria Quinones Sanchez admits that efforts to communicate with the victims of this injustice could have been much better, but remains indifferent about the matter and is continuing to push for the completion of the Tajdeed project:

“Our communication was not the best and that’s why we’ve hired a community outreach coordinator. We will do our best to be more deliberate moving forward.”

As for Marwan Kreidie, he expressed his stance on the matter in an interview for NBC10, Philadelphia:

“Look, the project is gonna happen.  I think the important thing now is to make sure that everybody knows what rights they have, and they basically have to go and negotiate with the City. We want to make sure everyone is happy and gets a fair amount.  We’re convinced this is gonna be a great project.  It’s a community project and we’re all excited about it.”

Everyone, that is, except the victims of the state aggression he supports.  For those being forced to give up to the city government what is rightfully theirs at the behest of the economically-illiterate political influences who are seeking to stifle their community’s development, excitement could not be further from their range of emotions.  Some of Mel’s statements on the matter include:

“I can’t get justice done. I made a good investment, and the government can come and take it off of me to give it to a developer, why?”

“How can this happen in the United States out of all places? They [the government] acted like they’re gods.”

“They’re stealing.  They’re taking my property, my tax dollars, and giving it to someone else…”

And Mel is correct in all cases.  Eminent domain is property theft, pure and simple, and there is no excuse on earth that could ever justify its use for any reason.  If a government can take someone’s property away based solely on whatever justifications it has made up for itself in an attempt to legitimize its crimes, then the question is raised about how much, if anything, anyone actually owns in this country.

Theft is theft, regardless of who commits it or whatever agency claims that there is a necessity for it, government being no exception.  What’s happening in Philadelphia is outright thuggery, and should not be tolerated for even an instant.

If people calling themselves “the government” have the ability and power to steal from you everything that you’ve worked your whole life to achieve, what does that say about what the term “ownership” actually means within the context of today’s society, or about which group is working to serve whom?  Do you think that a so-called “representative” or “public servant” ought to be able to steal your land and property from you for any justifiable reason, let alone for the outrageous excuse of needing to keep your community poor? 

A society in which such actions transpire is as far-removed from the ideals of freedom as one can be, and has already made its descent into complete and utter tyranny.  The only hope of putting a stop to these kinds of outrageous crimes is to resist allowing them to be committed at all costs, and to spread the word about such injustices to as many individuals as possible.  Property rights are the most important element of a free society, and if the state manages to take away an individual’s right to his own private property, it has also taken with it his self-ownership altogether.

Eminent domain is theft, plain and simple, and it is wrong in every instance.  No amount of grandstanding or usage of flowery legal terminology will ever change that reality–theft is theft, and ought never to be accepted by anyone, whether such an act has been committed by a common crook or by an elected official.  The outcome remains the same, and until such conduct is rejected entirely by every single individual member of society, unfortunate stories such as this one are only likely to continue to be present in the everyday news stories of the future.  Hopefully, people will begin to recognize eminent domain (and all other government initiatives) as the violent theft that it is, and begin to resist it sooner rather than later.  Those people in Kensington sure did, and with any luck, more will be soon to follow.  Perhaps the state will shoot itself in the foot by continuing to commit such abuses of its power, and bring about its own destruction when those who have been subjected to its oppression are no longer willing to tolerate it.  Hopefully that day will come about sooner rather than later.  Until it does, however, the only thing that I and the Kensington victims of eminent domain can do is spread the word about the importance of private property rights, and about the dangerous pitfalls of a society that fails to recognize them.