For most, the “American Dream” is a familiar credo that promises status, personal fulfillment and social escape. To go further, I'd suggest it's a gilded notion that implies any given individual, regardless of demographic, is afforded equal opportunity to achieve any level of personal success, given proper work ethic, merit and ambition.
I'll jump straight to the point through the following, admittedly brutal cliché: “The American Dream” is nothing more than an aureate prospect of unsustainable decadence, and has appropriated itself to more resemble an “American Nightmare;” every lavish, heart-warming success story that transcends racial divides and shatters glass ceilings only serves to closet an institutional hegemony that keeps the rich, rich.
Such a sweeping, contrarian statement naturally needs to offer some form of concrete evidence, and while I could draw from numerous eclectic anecdotes as to where the “American Dream” disappoints, I feel as though time is better served illustrating a particularly outrageous example that needs more public attention.
Such an example would be the steady, systemic criminalization of homelessness in some areas of the country. To some, that statement might appear as some twisted exaggeration, or perhaps an article ripped from the headlines of The Onion. Unfortunately, disbelief doesn't necessarily change the facts of the matter.
Indeed, being down on your luck and lacking residence is a criminal act fully punishable by the law. Take the city of Columbia, S.C., for example. Columbia is a city with an abnormally high homeless population per capita, and the local city council felt the issue needed to be addressed. Naturally, one would assume they'd offer programs to put the homeless in temporary housing, offer educational and vocational resources, and so on. But no — the Columbia city council opted to amend the issue by exiling the homeless to the outskirts of the city. Indeed, as a ThinkProgress article puts it, the homeless of Columbia “are facing an arduous choice; vacate downtown, or be arrested.”
The measure was enacted due to the notion that local Columbia businesses were at risk of losing potential revenue. The initiative operates on the premise that customers would avoid areas with homeless individuals in fear of assault or having to offer charity, and the measure operates by conducting a police presence around the commercial city center. The initiative also offers a “homeless hotline,” to which frustrated businesses and terrorized pedestrians can place their frenzied calls when they feel uncomfortable with the presence of the poor.
Of course, the measure couldn't pass if there wasn't some way of allocating the impoverished people to a separate space. The city has partnered with a local homeless shelter, to which arrested homeless individuals will be relegated. If that sounds fair, it isn't. The homeless shelter has 240 beds, and as such can only accommodate a similar number of people, and it just so happens that the homeless population in Columbia is roughly 1,500. Oh, and it's not your run-of-the-mill homeless shelter. The residents aren't allowed to leave the premises, except by appointed van, and only under rare circumstance.
This presents the homeless in Columbia with two options: go to the city jail or go to the jail masquerading as a homeless shelter.
This isn't some isolated case of backwards thinking. Criminalizing homelessness is a new legislative fashion, and has set up shop in cities like Miami, Palo Alto, Calif., and Tampa, Fla. More importantly, this isn't necessarily a rare public sentiment. Indeed, poverty has always been pushed to the subconscious of the minds of many Americans. After all, there's the American Dream: If Oprah or Marshall Mathers could flee the sluices of poverty, then why can't any of the residents lacking residence in Columbia, S.C., do the same?
As MU students, there's little we can do to immediately impact legislation miles away. However, it's invariably important to keep our attitudes about those impoverished in check. Racial divides, glass ceilings and the wealth gap are very real social constructs with droves of empirical evidence supporting their function and their existence. Whenever we do find ourselves in positions of influence, let us keep in mind the need for appropriate action.
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