My Own Personal Homeless Jesus
Credit: Dorothea Lange
May 30, 2016

Last month, a study came out from Stanford University with a conclusion that shocked its own researchers: Low-income people live longer and healthier lives when they live in affluent areas like New York or San Francisco. This is shocking because it’s counterintuitive. If you live in an affluent place like New York or San Francisco, there is a perceivable disdain for the down and out

The fact that the study names San Francisco as one of the best places for poor people didn’t even register with its mayor, Ed Lee. The same week that this study came out, a 30-second-long incident that left a homeless man in San Francisco shot dead by police prompted the mayor to declare that the city wasn’t a safe place for the homeless.

Tangible disdain for the have-nots goes back millennia. Enslaving them and watching them eaten by lions come to mind. Over time, this disdain for the down and out became less overt and further off the radar. Some contemporary examples:

First, there’s the affluent town of Beavercreek, Ohio that is 90% white and has a median income of $79,000 (about $30,000 more than rest of the state). The residents were recently willing to risk tens of millions of dollars in federal highway funds to block construction of a single bus stop because it might help commuters from nearby Dayton get to their jobs in Beavercreek efficiently. It also posed the risk of bringing “undesirables” into town – otherwise known as poor people. Dayton has a median household income of only $29,000 and 73% of the people who ride the Dayton bus system are minorities. The concept of making it easy for them to get to Beavercreek was too much for the residents’ nerves. So unsettling that they were willing to sacrifice ten of millions of dollars from the federal government. The government threatened to hold back the money on grounds that Beavercreek was being discriminatory, and apparently the townsfolk didn't care.

Consider the urban homeless – arguably the lowest income residents of any city – and the bizarre treatment they receive in relatively affluent towns.

In 2013, Columbia, South Carolina was enjoying something of an economic boom but rather than leverage the windfall to help their homeless population, they decided to beautify the city by getting rid of their homeless population entirely. Not by leveraging their economic success to get them jobs, homes and medical care, but by making them disappear. Columbia has one homeless shelter on the outskirts of town, and all 1,500 homeless people were required to move into it. But the shelter only has room for 240 people. Making matters worse, any one of the 1,500 homeless people who did not voluntarily move into the 240-bed shelter faced jail. Squeezing into the shelter was, therefore, the lesser of two evils. But there was a catch. Once a person checked into the shelter, they were not allowed to leave the shelter and go back downtown without an escort. It’s hard for almost anyone to conjure a homeless person’s escort or where a homeless person would find one.

Other examples showcase towns that can get nasty on a more personal level. A Pensacola, Florida ordinance made it illegal in 2014 for any homeless person to sleep under blankets, even when that year’s Polar Vortex swept through. Not to be outdone, Birmingham, Alabama enacted a law that allowed police to yank food out of homeless people’s hands. To clarify, church-run food trucks that passed out free food to starving people suddenly had to comply with a costly permit so that for-profit food trucks wouldn’t face competition. The permit charge was a value equivalent to 1,700 hot dogs, and 1,700 hot dogs might have been how many they could afford to give away in the first place. So hey, homeless people, good luck getting any hot dogs in this town.

Then there's the case of Davidson, North Carolina where a dirty, disheveled homeless man would not stop sleeping on a park bench outside an Episcopal church. Horrified passersby made frequent complaints to the police and wrote nasty letters, not because the man might need help, but because they didn’t want to look at him. The police weren’t able to do much about it, because the man, it turned out, was Jesus – or at least a bronze statue meant to depict Jesus (stigmata and all) as a down-on-his-luck vagrant. The statue even had the Pope’s blessing. In the words of the church’s Reverend Buck, "It gives authenticity to our church. This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society."

The stories above are representative of hundreds that pop up every year. The portraits they paint are of unashamed abuse by the haves of the have-nots, and do not back up the results of the Stanford study. Instead they bring to life the passage in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath that reads in part: “If you're in trouble, or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that'll help - the only ones.” Yes, it would seem indeed that the affluent aren’t going to do a damn thing other than steal your blankets and yank hot dogs out of your mouth, so why live with them? But, somehow, in spite of the anecdotes above and many more like them, poor people who live around wealthy people are healthier and live longer and probably shouldn’t take Steinbeck’s advice.

This contradiction is why Stanford researchers had good reason to be shocked at the outcome of their own study. They admit that they can’t explain why the poor live longer and healthier lives in affluent urban areas.

It’s anyone's guess. Perhaps it's because the mental and physical price of admission to an affluent city is so high that we’re witnessing some kind of survival of the fittest (not to be confused with natural selection). Or maybe it’s because jails in wealthier cities can offer better medical assistance. Or – maybe—the Stanford researchers stumbled upon the first tangible evidence of trickle down theory. But like trickle down theory, nothing about it adds up.

(Originally posted at The Chiseler)



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