Nineteenth-century Paris was often compared to a wilderness by its poets and writers. They sensed that the city had somehow become so vast, so magical and unpredictable, that one could wander it as though it were not made by human beings and reason, but rather had sprung up with all the mystery and intricacy of a jungle. And the feral city was perceived as a pleasure, at least for those bold and free enough to venture into its byways and dangers. Alexandre Dumas wrote about “Les Mohicans du Paris,” and many saw themselves as explorers.
Before gas lighting, European cities had been as dark as a forest at night—darker than much of the countryside, for the buildings blocked starlight and moonlight—and predators roamed the byways, pouncing on unsuspecting stragglers. You dressed down or hired a torchbearer and guards, or both. Or you stayed home—if you had one. In the mid-twentieth century, the great German-Jewish cultural theorist and Parisian Walter Benjamin wrote again and again of Paris as a labyrinth, a forest, a mystery, and a joy. He once reminisced, “I saw sunset and dawn, but between the two I found myself a shelter. Only those for whom poverty or vice turns the city into a landscape in which they stray from dark till sunrise know it in a way denied to me.”
In Recent Years, American cities have become a wilderness of another sort. The homeless live in our built environment as though they are not the species for which it was built. Doorways are their caves, boxes their beds of boughs, fountains their pools, sidewalks their porches and dining rooms. Like backpackers and nomads, they must carry their goods with them in bags or shopping carts. Like jackals and buzzards, they live by scavenging the leftovers of more privileged predators. They roam exposed to the elements, mapping the small routes of daily survival—the recycling center where cans and bottles turn into cash; the places that serve free food, offer social services, or allow congregation. The homeless live in the city as though it were a wilderness: not a wilderness of symbiosis, of beauty, of complexity, in the way hunter-gatherers might live in a landscape too well-known to be a wilderness, but a wilderness that is not safe, not reliable, not made for them. It is the wilderness into which Old Testament exiles were driven. It’s the world we’ve made of late.
But It Is Not They Who have become savages in the wild city. We have. They are there because we—the we who elected Ronald Reagan, who chose to vote for the tax cuts that meant drastic social services cuts, who allowed the New Deal and the Great Society to be canceled, the we who looked the other way or did not resist hard enough—decided to create this wilderness for them. I remember that twenty years ago, when the huge army of the homeless was first being turned out into American cities, a writer expressed shock that this wealthiest nation had become like Brazil or India, a place where the affluent stepped over the dying on their way to the opera. I thought of this recently when friends from suburbia came to town and I guid- ed them around my familiar haunts. They were shocked and a little alarmed by the homeless, and I realized I’d grown accustomed to people living on the street. I was not afraid of them and tried to give them back, in conversation and body language, a little of the dignity that had been stripped from them. But I was also troublingly accustomed to a society in which people suffer, overdose, go mad, and die in the streets.
Perhaps my friends were frightened by the homeless because the sight of dirty, deranged people was so unfamiliar to them. Or maybe they couldn’t distinguish between suffering and danger, and the homeless are often portrayed as dangerous. In all my years of walking the city streets, often alone, often at night, I’ve never been menaced by an evidently homeless person (as opposed to, say, careening luxury cars). Some of them become landmarks: the older man in the wide felt hat who was always on the park bench when I went running, seeming more like a country squire than a desperado; the sad woman sitting cross-legged on the same corner near city hall for years, day and night, rocking back and forth and holding a stuffed animal amid all her tattered belongings.
The Homeless May Indeed be a danger, but only to our idea of ourselves. They represent how deranged, how desperate, and how dirty human beings can become, something that most of us would rather not know. They represent how wide the spectrum of human nature is and how fragile our own civility is—though many of them are among the most polite and gracious people I encounter every day. Some of them seem to be homeless because they lack the initiative and cunning to survive in a world where security—long-term employment, unions, blue-collar jobs, affordable housing—is vanishing and we must all fend for ourselves, not just by working but by calculating, by planning, by competing, by abandoning and reinventing our sense of self. They are anachronisms, the people who might have done well in stable jobs that no longer exist, and when I give them food or money, they say, “God bless you,” a lot of them, an old-fashioned response.
In parts of Asia, beggars are necessary to society because they allow others to honor their obligation to give. The Buddhist monks of southeast Asia, for example, take a vow not to deal with money and allow nonmonks to receive the spiritual benefit of giving: poverty and spirituality have a long acquaintance. Gavin Newsom, the restaurateur-businessman who is now San Francisco’s mayor, built his career by beating up on the homeless (though he has since somewhat redeemed himself). John Burton, who represents San Francisco in the state Senate, was disgusted enough to fight back. “St. Francis was a beggar,” said the signs he put up on the streets, and “Jesus gave alms to the poor.”
In cities around the country, the homeless are most often treated primarily as an eyesore for others. Policies often focus on moving them away or making them invisible, as if they were a problem of aesthetics, not ethics, as if our comfort, not theirs, were all that is at stake. The homeless also signify that the distribution of wealth in this wealthiest society the world has ever known is itself an atrocity against humanity as well as against the environment, for the armies of the homeless were produced in large degree by decisions made by the affluent. Their decisions to defund mental health programs and dump the patients, to turn basic human needs for housing and health care into speculative commodities whose upward spiral has enriched the few and burdened the many, were decisions to break the social contract and try to buy their way out of it.
More And More Often, the wealthy try to buy replacements for a functioning society—armed guards and gated communities in place of social justice, bottled water and expensive cancer cures in place of unpolluted resources, private schools in place of the good public education that was once a backbone of this nation, the stock market in place of social security. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt through at least Richard Nixon (who was considering universal health care and passed the Clean Water and Clean Air acts), the United States became more of a society, a place that recognized interdependence and obligation toward each other. From Ronald Reagan’s presidency on, we have dismantled that social contract. The homeless are frightening because they are a mirror: in their fear, in the uncertainty of their predicament, in their hunger, in their desperation, we see that we have gone feral.
Rebecca Solnit is an author, human rights and envi- ronmental activist whose writing has been recognized by the NEA, the Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannon literary fellowship. The Faraway Nearby (2013) was a National Book Award nominee.
From Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes For Politics. Copyright © 2007 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.