Sanctioned Sadism

Why the Right Needs the Homeless

 After a weekend of demonstrations on behalf of the homeless, Rudolph Giuliani looks a little like a cornered rat. On Monday, he accused his critics of demanding special rights for street people—the classic cry of a wounded conservative—while polls showed New Yorkers solidly opposed to his plan for denying shelter to those who don't work. But the mayor may yet profit from the uproar.

In the short run, at least, Giuliani's war on the homeless was a political wash. "He might have lost a bit in the city," says Lee Miringoff at the Marist Poll—but not as much as Hillary Clinton did after the West Bank fiasco sent her numbers plummeting among the city's Jewish voters. Meanwhile, in the suburbs and upstate, Rudy's numbers were unchanged.

But the real gain for Giuliani is with a certain group of voters who have yet to embrace him. "This is another of Rudy's red-meat issues for conservatives," says pollster John Zogby. "It's his way of saying, 'What I'm not going to give you on abortion, I'll give you on a whole series of issues to make you feel better about me.' " And for conservatives, homelessness is a bellwether issue; proof that poverty is a moral problem, not an economic one. There's a right-wing consensus about who the homeless are, and it's best summed up in the way they are described by conservative columnists: dirty, drug-addicted, mentally ill, violent.

Doorways are still for sleeping despite Giuliani's work-for-shelter policy.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Doorways are still for sleeping despite Giuliani's work-for-shelter policy.

Andrea Peyser of the Post used precisely those words last week to bolster her contention that homelessness is entirely "a result of alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness." John Tierney, the Times's resident neocon, was more genteel but no less demonizing. Though national surveys show that only about a third of homeless adults are addicted to drugs or alcohol, Tierney jacked those numbers way up by citing a survey of derelicts in Times Square, where "more than 80 percent reported abusing drugs or alcohol." Tierney even managed to taunt the people who give to beggars. They "go home warmed by the glow of their generosity," he wrote. "The crackhead left behind is not their problem."

What's missing from this picture? Only the fact that the average homeless person in New York is a child. On any given night, about 5000 families, including 9000 children, make up most of the population in city shelters. This is the face of homelessness conservatives won't see, if only because it shows the true impact of Giuliani's threat to take away the children of street people who don't work.

Next week, the Coalition For the Homeless will argue that the mayor's new policy—which also includes barring the homeless from shelters if they fail to arrive at appointments on time—violates a consent decree requiring the city to provide a roof for those who need it. "When Newt Gingrich proposed in 1994 that the kids of people thrown off welfare be put into orphanages, it was too much for even the Republican Congress," says coalition counsel Steven Banks. "But now we see Giuliani embracing exactly that policy."

It hardly matters that the career criminal accused of throwing a brick at a young woman in Midtown lived only intermittently on the street. The homeless have become a means to the end of solidifying Rudy's core constituency—especially the skeptics of the Conservative Party. It's a time-honored tactic for Republicans; has been ever since the red-baiting rise of Richard Nixon. Giuliani looks more and more like the young Nixon, who owed his victory in 1950 to a red-baiting campaign against a liberal woman, Helen Gahagan Douglas. In the current conservative scenario, quality-of-life offenders are the enemy within. It's a logical transposition since, as Nixon would learn from George Wallace, the real political elixir—the crack of American politics—is race.

It was race that elected Ronald Reagan, who built a potent backlash on the specter of the "welfare queen," and George Bush, who rode Willie Horton to the White House. Ever since then, Republicans have profited from the popular confluence of crime and welfare, using the twin image of the predatory black man and the profligate unwed mother to secure a majority. There is always a face of evil in right-wing politics to give people a rationale for voting their fear and rage. That face is typically poor and black.

To understand how racism fuels the crackdown on homelessness, consider how the tabloids covered six recent attacks on innocent bystanders. When Kent Gasser was knocked unconscious by a rock-wielding assailant in Riverside Park in September, the incident went virtually unnoticed by the tabs. When Sofia Collazo was pushed onto the subway tracks in 1997, it merited only three small articles. Similarly scant coverage followed the deaths of two women pushed onto the tracks in 1995 and '96.

The attack on Edgar Rivera last April, which left him crippled, did make page one of the Post, but within a day it vanished to page six. (It never got closer than page five in the News.) Kendra Webdale's murder last January wasn't front page news at all, though her schizophrenic assailant helped inspire the editorial about getting "the violent crazies off our streets" that ran in the News—but only after the Barrett attack.

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