Hunger is Never an Appropriate Punishment: Feeding the Homeless
Hunger is Never an Appropriate Punishment: Feeding the Homeless
By Kirsten Anderberg (http://www.kirstenanderberg.com) - January 27, 2012
Hunger is not an appropriate form of punishment, no matter what the crime. Just as torture is not considered appropriate in civilized societies, even for the worst prisoners, it is inappropriate to allow people to go hungry to punish them for real or imagined crimes. The number one thing I see people use to justify just stepping over homeless and hungry people in the streets is judgment. This idea that homeless people deserve hunger as a punishment, or perhaps as an impetus to do what society wants, is ill thought out. That thinking is also based in a holier than thou philosophy that can easily be deconstructed as well. Unless you are willing to kill someone for their crimes, cutting off access to food as the punishment is inhumane.
This morning I had an argument with my neighbor who was angry when she found out I was taking a basket full of food out to the streets to feed the homeless. She does not know I deal with hunger regularly as I am much poorer than she knows and since people judge people who are hungry so harshly, I do not share my food insecurity issues with her. The first thing I want to talk about here is the fact that people hide their hunger. They hide it because to admit you are hungry brings a wrath of judgment on all levels. This actually harkens back to the 1600’s when the Victorian Poor Laws went into effect, which separated the “worthy poor” from the “unworthy poor.” I am not going to go into the complex dance between industry exploiting the poor for profits, etc. in this article though that plays into this. Poverty is created by those who take more than their share, as Thoreau said. But what I am going to talk about in this article is people’s attitudes towards hunger.
This last week I battled with hunger. Hunger has a lot of physical symptoms to it you would not know about if you have never been hungry. For me, hunger involves insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, nervousness, agitation, sweats then chills, impatience, inability to concentrate, a feeling of low self-worth, and eventually a lack of any appetite, which then causes me to get sick when I finally do eat, and the first things I eat after a hunger bout just taste like cardboard to me. I know the pains of hunger and I know how deep it hurts. It hurts physically, mentally and emotionally. You feel absolutely left out of society when you experience hunger. I go out and feed homeless people myself because it needs to be done. Part of why I feed the homeless is I know that loss of hope, and I know that I, myself, am more hostile and impatient when hungry. For a kinder, gentler society, we all must eat. I feed people to make society kinder. My friend Thaddeus Spae says, “There are three rules: No one hits, everybody eats, and there is no third rule.” That sounds about right to me.
This morning my neighbor scrunched her nose when I said I was feeding the homeless. She asked where I fed them. I told her at the park and in front of the library where they line up before it opens. She said “that only encourages them.” She then began to tell me about some lecture she attended where they told people in our community not to give the homeless money. I retorted to her I was not giving them money, I was giving them food. She said the lecturer told them only to give money to organizations that feed the hungry. So let us begin with my retort to that. I am really sick and tired of poverty pimps. I believe you MUST take a vow of poverty if your aim is to honestly help the poor. If your idea is to make some non-profit organization, where 80% of your income goes to middle class administrators, and only 20% of the money collected for the poor reaches the poor, you should be ashamed. But that is the profile of almost every single “organization” out there slated to help the poor.
If all the money that people give to help the poor actually went to the poor, not all the bloated administrators’ salaries, there would be no hunger or homelessness. The problem is all of these poverty pimps are taking all the money for the poor that is contributed and spending it on their own middle class homes and even vacation homes and new cars, leaving nothing for the poor. So, no, I do not support poverty pimps and I think the idea that people expect to make high level salaries working for organizations slated to help the poor is a crime that does not break any laws.
One example of such a poverty pimp organization is the Real Change Newspaper in Seattle, WA. I can tell you many ways that is a poverty pimp organization. They take in millions in charity to help the homeless yet I cannot trace one cent reaching the homeless. They print a paper, its cost was 5 cents in 2005 to print it, and the organization then charged the homeless 35 cents per paper, making a profit off of the homeless, and supposedly what they offer is this crappy paper no one reads to the homeless to sell on streets for a dollar, after buying it for 35 cents. So where did the millions donated go? It went to the salaries of the staff, who have never been homeless and are rooted in the middle class. That is a perfect example of poverty pimping. So, my neighbor says only to give help to feed hungry people through these bloated organizations and I say, no thanks.
Her next comment was there was a FoodShare organization here and that was the place we should contribute. Again she said I should not be just feeding hungry people on the street. I told her that the FoodShare produce handout was only in Oxnard, not in our town, and also people line up at 6 am for a 9 am handout there. She did not seem to care they had to go to a different town and wait 3 hours for some food! She seemed to imply they deserved to wait for food. She then recommended donating to several religious organizations in town that run soup kitchens. I told her I think it is a sin to hold hungry people hostage, making them listen to religious jargon, before giving them food. For that reason, I would prefer to just go give hungry people food, without the politico-religious strings attached.
She then said this lecture she went to said there were 4 kinds of homeless people: veterans, mentally ill people, people just released from jails, and those who are just down on their luck. She seemed to just focus on the prisoner population, shaming me for supporting criminals. I retorted that 90% of all those arrested need public defenders so it is the poor that are being arrested, not the middle class. I also added public defenders receive half the budget of the defenders across the board so many poor people are railroaded in criminal courts simply due to lack of proper legal representation. I said her husband was a vet, and she supposedly “supports our troops” so why is she mad at me for feeding homeless vets who “served our country?” I then said that yes, mentally ill people were on streets homeless. And I also said there are not social services for the mentally ill. And in the past, we did things like lock them away to rot and be abused and die in mental asylums like Camarillo State Mental Hospital up the road from where I live which held up to 7,000 mental patients at a time and was open from 1936-1997.
I said I did not feel that the mentally ill should be punished with hunger on the streets any more than I think it is humane to deny mental patients access to food in mental asylums. Wilma Wilson writes in her book, They Call Them Camisoles, that when entering Camarillo Hospital in 1939 she said she would no longer need her curlers or makeup. But a woman cautioned her to keep them as you would not get enough food inside Camarillo Hospital as a patient unless you flirted with the men on the kitchen staff and they would then sneak you food. I think it is absurd and inhumane to not allow mental patients in a hospital proper food, and I also think it is absurd to not give mentally ill homeless people on the street food as some sort of punishment. They are exactly the same situations. Also, in Nadine Scalia’s book, Keeper of the Keys, documenting her time as a nurse at Camarillo Hospital in the 1970’s, she documents the workers were stealing the patient food and even ran a catering business out the back door for their personal gain using the food meant for patients! This idea that food can be used as a weapon against people is utterly insane and I do not support it.
I told my neighbor it was not my place to judge. I told her that people were suffering and I could not just not notice it. I quoted Spearhead to her from the song “Hole in the Bucket:” “And I'm thinkin' about the man who's holdin' up the cup, I pay for all the stuff and get a pocketful of change, Should I give it to the man's the question in my brain, What's gonna happen if I give the man a dime? I don't wanna pay for anotha brotha's wine, What's gonna happen if I give the man a quarter? Will he find a dealer and try to place an order? What's gonna happen if I give the man a nickel, Will he buy some food or some pork that's been pickled? I'm not responsible for the man's depression, How can I find compassion in the midst of recession? How come all these questions keep f---in' with my head, He's starin' in my eyes just as I'm walkin' past, I'm tryin to avoid him cause I know he's gonna ask, Me about the coinage that is in my pocket, But I don't know if I should put it in his bucket, Walk right past him to think about it more, Back at the crib I'm openin' up the door, A pocketful of change it don't mean a lot to me, My cup is half full but his is empty…”
I told my neighbor we were poor when I was a child, and we ate at food banks and suffered through hunger often. I told her it is hard to be pleasant when hungry. I told her mentally ill people should not be punished with hunger. I told her veterans deserved better and hunger was not an appropriate punishment for veterans who are homeless either. I told her even criminals do not deserve hunger as a means of punishment. Hunger is not an appropriate means of controlling populations in a civilized society is what it all boils down to for me. You can judge people, you can pretend your own sh-t does not stink, but however superior you think you are to others, you still lost part of your own humanity and lower yourself if you are willing to use hunger as a weapon, and as a punishment. It is inhumane, it is uncivilized and it is irrational.
Today, I went to hand out toasted peanut butter and honey apple butter sandwiches along with hard boiled eggs and chocolate. When I walked up to the park, a homeless man was singing in the sunshine, “It’s a beautiful morning…” I began to hand out warm food and then chocolate. I hand out chocolate because being homeless is hard and comfort food is needed by those with so little comfort.
Additionally, people act like poor people should only eat subsistence foods, only rice and beans, never cake or cookies. But homeless people enjoy treats as much as any middle class person in their homes. I think people on streets need special treats like chocolate and I have no objection to including treats with the subsistence foods I give out. The smiles the treats bring are worth the small amount of money spent on the treats. Somehow it shows I cared above and beyond just the call of bringing nutritious food. It shows I understand what is going on in ways. As I handed out the food, one man was rolling pennies from a jar. He handed me $4 in pennies and asked me to take it to help pay for the food I hand out. I took it and thanked him. Some of the guys recognize me now and said if I ever need any yard-work or heavy lifting or any help, they would do it for free whenever I asked. Another couple invited me to their wedding on the street in April. I said I would bring a cake! When I talked to the homeless folks in the park today, we all talked about sharing HUMANITY. We talked about things that had nothing to do with money or fashion or fancy expensive things. We talked about sharing and caring about each other, and being human and humane. We talked about hope and love, and how me being there giving them warm food was about more than food, it was about love. That was not lost on them or me at all.
A few weeks back, I took a bunch of hot burritos down to the park. Everyone was eating them and then another group of people showed up asking for burritos. I had no more. But the group that was half through eating their handed theirs over to the newcomers. I am astonished at how well the poor share with one another. The middle class could learn a lot from the poor about cooperation. I am appalled that most middle class homes have pantries stocked full of food, but when asked to donate to food banks, they only give expired goods and dented cans. The inability to share is actually quite a handicap to one’s humanity. I do not envy the middle class patrolling their neighborhoods and hording their goods in the way they so often do. I do not envy people hung up on greed to the point of wanting to exploit the poor as a poverty pimp. I actually think anyone who wants to help the poor needs to take a vow of poverty to avoid a conflict of interest. I think that the middle class could learn a hell of a lot from the homeless people in their towns, if they would only talk to them. Call out people who support vets but not the homeless, as a large percentage of the homeless are vets! Call out people who condone hunger as a societal punishment. I reiterate, hunger is not an appropriate punishment. There is no justification EVER to use hunger and food as a weapon. It is inhumane, uncivilized and it sullies any assumed superiority within that vacuum of judgment so prevalent amidst the topic of hunger, homelessness and poverty today.