Monday, November 18, 2019

City Council, November 18th - On the Hobo Element, Purity, and Danger

"rid the city of the hobo element"
September 15th, 1903
A year ago there was a history piece in the paper about ways that the old City Hall was used as a homeless shelter, the "hotel de Minto," during the Great Depression.

In the piece the phrase, "hotel de Minto," seemed to be an ironic, but not hostile or mean, way of referring to a basement and its very basic level of accommodation. It was a joke for desperate times, black humor perhaps, but still a bantering joke.

In a previous generation, however, with a different Chief of Police, the locution seems rather more pointed, a mean dig at those unfortunate enough to experience the "hotel," and also having a different referent, the jail rather than basement.
Ten names appeared upon the registration at Hotel de Gibson yesterday morning...Chief of Police Gibson is determined to rid the city of the hobo element...and all loafers will be promptly arrested and placed behind bars.
So I wonder if the later, Depression-era meaning of "hotel de Minto" is actually a little less generous.

The language we use today is often not very generous in clear ways.

In several front-page pieces involving bridges over the last couple of years, it's always about dirt and disorder, about cleaning and clearing. Even if there is what reasonable people consider an inordinate amount of real trash, some of the things as personal belongings are not actually trash, and the attributes of trash also get transferred to the people, as if they were trash themselves. The people, then, are dirt that need to be cleaned up.

January 2018

March 2018

March 2018

January 2019
Even as we shift the conversation to downtown sidewalks, so much of the framing and rhetoric is about dirt, garbage, and civic disorder.

On the ramp and path system under the Center Street Bridge, the people complaining rarely seemed to be people who might wish to walk and bike and use the path and ramp system. The complaints and the rhetoric had everything to do with a different class of people, people who were improperly occupying and managing a place, people who needed to be removed, and people who represented, or created, dirt and disorder.

Another approach to nuisance,
 Jan 21st, 1903
It was about filth. We've seen this before.

And when the path system was "cleaned," the gesture also took place on a stage for a civic drama of cleansing and the restoration of order. It seemed more than a little like a ritual, in fact. It is possible to read a kind of scapegoating, even. (You might also remember video series posted to social media documenting a DIY clean-up patrol. There was a kind of vigilantism in it.)

The path system should feel safe. It did not and there was a real public interest in addressing that. But in the "cleaning" there was quite an element of moral censure and disgust, a neo-temperance urge we might say, above and beyond the minimum necessary to meet the actual public need and make the path usable and safe.

So all that is a long wind-up to tonight's Council formal Work Session on a vagrancy law.

Over at CANDO they have much more trenchant things to say. Just this month see:


Sarah Owens said...

T.S. Eliot wrote that “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” This community is very fortunate in SBOB's sense of history.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Astute of SBOB to see that the propaganda is about making other humans less human and 'dirty'. Too many people buy into that 'trash talk.' Salem has a serious problem with the unhoused. Talking about a few people who make problems downtown is a sad way to ignore the real issue of not enough affordable housing, or social services, or compassion for others.

My fear is that this law, if passed, will just create the illusion of doing something. It will make criminals of some poor people. It will waste precious money. But most of all it will continue the unproductive and costly practice of pushing people from place to place without any real help. And it will gain some elected representatives some votes with the haters.

The City Councilors who call themselves 'progressive' are at serious risk of losing any credibility if they fall prey to this propaganda and hatefulness. Salem citizens that I talk to want real solutions. True they do not want to have the poor people living on the street in front of their house or someone in a car or motor home living at their curb. They do not want them camping by a local creek or in a patch of brambles. But what they also do not want them to be sent packing every other week to someone else's street. What they truly want is housing or shelters or something humane where these poor people can go. They want treatment programs so people who have mental health issues can get care. They want drug and alcohol treatment programs where people can get better.

If the City cared they would put out real data about the unhoused. They would not put forth the drivel and useless self-praise that is on their webpage. They would stop patting themselves on the back for the things they do or take credit for what others are doing and get to work educating the public about who the unhoused really are, and then engage people in a real dialogue about solutions that we all can contribute to making happen.

Homelessness is a huge issue. It deserves some serious discussion by the community. Passing a useless law does not make us safer. It just prolongs the agony and puts off finding real solutions for these people who live among us and are our neighbors!