Homeless in the United States of America

On an all-American road trip this summer, I arrived in San Francisco, a city of bright lights, trendy hippies, shopping malls that sell jumbo jets and streets peopled by the homeless. A breed of homeless completely unlike any I had seen before. Walking through the wealthy gay district I received cheeky smiles from tramps with signs saying ‘I’m sexy and I’m homeless’, ‘Kisses for a $’, and my personal favourite,  ‘My wife had a better lawyer’. These people weren’t apologetic for begging, didn’t seem hopeless, nor to have been living this way for long. Many of them were happy, even.

But then I hit downtown. Now the homeless I saw were more decrepit, and there was no sense that their lives might ever change. On closer inspection, I realised I was looking at an entire population of the mentally ill, with illnesses like I had never seen before – people babbling to themselves, crying, obsessively tapping every fourth paving stone, a man in a wheelchair which was older than me with a sticker on the back of it which said ‘Not to be removed from St. Francis Memorial Hospital’. A couple lay down and embraced in the street; one of them had no arms. As I walked down an incredibly long straight street, a man, roughly in his 30s, had been loudly talking to himself beside me in what sounded, with its scatterings of trendy slang, like the voice of someone who used to have a whole bunch of friends. He turned around ahead of me and started screaming right at me. At first I was terrified, but then I realised he didn’t even see me. I stole round a corner and took a breather. Where was I? Apparently in a caricature of a mental asylum. Where had America gone? And how had this happened in the land of the free?

I later discovered that what I had witnessed was in part due to America’s ‘deinstitutionalisation’ – a policy that began in 1955, of closing down long-stay psychiatric hospitals, with the (unfulfilled) intention of treating people in community mental health services. The objective, as defined by President Carter’s Commision on Mental Health, was ‘to maintain the greatest degree of freedom, self-determination, autonomy, dignity, and integrity of body, mind, and spirit for the individual while he or she participates in treatment’. Instead, many severely ill schizophrenics, manic-depressives and others with major, incurable dysfunctions were discharged without ensuring that they had any long-term form of help. As a result, much of the severely mentally ill population has simply been relocated to the streets and jails, where ‘self-determination’ amounts to a choice of soup kitchens, and any so-called ‘dignity’ or ‘integrity of body, mind and spirit’ is long gone.

America seems to be conducting not so much a war on poverty as a war on the poor. New Orleans, for example, is known to do clean-up acts, in which police take all the homeless off the street and dump them in jail – an ill-conceived pretence which merely sweeps the problem under the rug. There seems to be a misguided attitude to these people – as though the country believes it has no responsibilities.

Homelessness is often considered as a problem of the 80s, since the media is now looking elsewhere, but the effects of deinstitutionalisation are still very apparent. Council housing does not exist in the way that we know it in the UK. Instead there are ‘the projects’ in some cities, often referred to as ‘the housing of last resort’ because of endemic problems of ostracisation and violence, and there are also homeless shelters, avoided by many who would rather be out on the streets because of the extreme violence, rape, theft and murder that haunt these places. For the disabled homeless there are highly unlikely ways to claim money, involving lawyers and large amounts of paperwork. Without benefits, mentally ill children are known to have been left out on the streets by parents who cannot care for them. With almost no safety net to catch the fallen, these vulnerable people are in an abyss out of which they can never climb.

I thought about getting on a bus, before somebody noticed me as the odd (sane) one out, and after a brief moment considering whether the people on the street or on the bus looked the least distant from my level of reality, I hopped on. The bus driver, perhaps sensing my wide-eyed shock, began to speak about what I had witnessed, from his perspective: ‘I have seen the worst of what can happen to a man pass in front of my bus. If I had known what I would have seen I never would have taken this job.’ The insane-o next to him nodded knowingly.

Originally published by Epigram.


Thinking through Israel

As a girl from a Jewish family, I had visited Israel often. In recent years, though, I had grown uneasy at how little I knew about the tensions in the region, especially regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.  My resolution: a trip through Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories in order to gain some insight into the issues for myself.

Before entering Lebanon I had to obtain a new passport, as evidence of my previous visits to Israel would have been enough to send me home before I left the ground. All evidence that we were going onwards to Israel had to be removed, and as a land crossing through Syria was out of the question, we flew via Jordan.

Arab Israeli children playing football by The Temple on the Mount. Photo by Milla Lupton.

With neighboring Syria on the verge of civil war, the sight of lost limbs and bullet-pocked buildings in Lebanon were a poignant reminder; not only of previous wars with Israel, but also of the 15 year civil war caused in part by hostility towards the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who immigrated there after the creation of Israel. Unable to talk openly to the people we met, I started to become aware of a growing unease at our connection to Israel and of my own Jewish identity. One friend we could speak openly with – a Brit with Lebanese ties – asked, ‘Do you feel bad visiting Israel, considering how Palestinians are forced to live?’ It wouldn’t be until we reached the West Bank that I could find an answer.

In Israel we met an Arab girl named Laila.* She lives in Nazareth and attends the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Still getting to grips with the history of the conflict, Laila clarified for me that ‘Palestinians are from those areas which didn’t agree to be part of Israel in the ‘48 agreement. Arabs who live in Israel are those who did and they are called Israeli Palestinians – it appears on their passports but not on their ID cards. Palestinians cannot enter Israel without special permission, like a medical issue. Whereas Israeli-Palestinians such as myself can move around wherever but we get more questions.’

What were her feelings on the Israel-Palestine situation I wondered? ‘We don’t like to think about it, otherwise we wouldn’t know where we are. My own grandparents lived in Palestine and it was their home. If I was back in ‘48, I would be only for Palestine, but it’s different now. They [the Jews] have been here for 3 generations. This is their home now too.’

On the question of Palestinian animosity and violence, Laila pointed quite simply towards their treatment: ‘We buy what we’re sold. People begin to behave how they’re expected to’, meaning if someone is treated with hostility as a security threat, they will react violently and so continue the cycle.

The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Grace Regan.
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. Photo by Grace Regan.

A few days later Laila joined us on an attempted trip to Jericho in the West Bank, during which our car broke down. With no insurance and the borders closing soon for evening, we were forced to take refuge with an impoverished but incredibly generous Palestinian family. One older woman told Laila, who translated, of how she had not been able to visit her daughter for 17 years, though her daughter is free to visit her. I began to realize that fraught links such as these exist all across Israel and the Palestinian territories; countless families divided by the category of their identity cards. In meeting this one Palestinian family I became aware of the inevitable strain on any kind of solidarity between a people divided. Able to live in relative freedom and prosperity, Arab Israelis have imitated to survive in a place with Western ideals, and as such are rejected by many Palestinians.

As I open my eyes for the first time to all the soldiers in Israel’s streets, an image comes to mind – of Israel as an unnatural insertion into a land determined to repel it, its borders held in place only by the security of occupation. And as I thought about the question posed by my Lebanese friend, I really grasped the magnitude of the problem. Neither in Israel nor in the territories are Arabs allowed to live as they should, but Israel is no longer so new that its disappearance would solve the problem. This is a country now home to Jews just as it is Arabs, and it is on such an understanding that progress towards peace must be made.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Pop-Activism: A Mixed Blessing

Why popularising complex world crises can be problematic.

If you were a celebrity, the constant media attention would give you enormous power. Surely, if you were able to command the masses and so direct your government’s dealings with people in need, it would be the right thing to do, wouldn’t it?

George Clooney has used his star status to throw public and therefore government attention onto the conflicts in Sudan. He has succeeded in mobilising an unprecedented effort concerning a war in a previously obscure region: United Nations peacekeepers were deployed and President Bashir was taken to court and charged with ten counts of war crime, including genocide. But how much has actually changed? Bashir is still in power and there is little point in peacekeepers if there is no peace to keep.

Celebrities command more media attention than politicians, so unless they provide the public with proper information, this can short-circuit the system of governance already in place; galvanising public opinion against Bashir is destroying the delicate bargaining position with him that the American government have been working towards. Celebrity behaviour is such that they are unlikely to publicise a problem without also providing a crowd-pleasing quick fix.

George Clooney at Sudan rally DC. Photo by Christoph Koetti
George Clooney at Sudan rally DC. Photo by Christoph Koetti

A leading voice in development studies, Dr Tina Wallace, confirms that when using a celebrity as publicity for a charity ‘the fundraising messages that this organisation has the answer can become dominant… and of course the can’t have all the answers’. Experts say that solutions need to come from the ground up, addressing longstanding issues over land, water and grazing rights, and that borders need to be demarcated through dialogue, as these difficult conditions are what have produced such a leader as Bashir and could produce others to take his place.

Youtube video ‘Kony 2012’, watched by millions, implied that the more people know about an issue, the more likely it is that it will be solved. It is an attractive concept because it implies that you can help. Because of this, most of the initial viewers were thirteen to seventeen-year-olds, familiar with and optimistic about the power of the twitter phenomenon. The artificial connection between the cause and the celebrities involved mirrored the familiar simulation of intimacy between celebrities and their followers. It implied that if you keep up with Kim Kardashian, who keeps up with Kony, you become a useful part of the campaign.

But Kony has not been in Uganda for six years. The Lord’s Resistance Army currently operates in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and is now thought to number no more than 300 fighters. The video used out of date footage from ten years ago, insinuating that the situation remains the same today and tugging on the heartstrings of the Western public.

When Kony 2012 was shown to the villagers who had been affected by the atrocities – they had known nothing of the campaign, let alone Youtube – stones were thrown and many were too upset to watch. One woman is said to have made the comparison of selling Osama Bin Laden paraphernalia post 9/11 – which would be highly offensive to Americans. Instead of representing the real issues in northern Uganda, Jason Russell ended up belittling and commercialising their suffering. ‘Kony 2012’ is an example in which seriously misleading information was used, suggesting an over-simplified solution. Killing one man is unlikely solve the complex problems that are creating such violence, conflict and misery in that part of Africa.

Large fundraising events have their problems too: Bob Geldof raised $140m through Live Aid in 1985, and indeed the country became much richer. However, only in the last 5 years or so have Ethiopia’s poverty and AIDS issues shown any sign of turning around. This money was unlikely to help without being combined with measures to reduce corruption and adjust government so that it aids those in poverty more efficiently. Otherwise, money can end up in all the wrong pockets, and make little difference to those it was intended for.

Celebrities can be very good at tuning into sensitive topics and commanding empathy, which is something we should not want to lose entirely to an unsentimental, overly hesitant approach, or to say that all world crises are too complex to be contemplated by a supposedly unthinking public. ‘Kony 2012’ makes it seem as though highlighting a problem will equate to its solution; in fact we live in a world which doesn’t serve up easy answers. Clooney himself puts it wisely: ‘You think that the minute people know, then it’ll stop. Your assumption is that everyone just doesn’t know. The truth is, even when you know, it doesn’t stop.’

Originally pubilshed by Epigram.

Review: King Lear

The prince of Darkness is a gentleman.

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of my mother coming to visit me in Bristol, to take me to see King Lear at The Tobacco Factory. My mother likes to call Bristol a small provincial town – sometimes I wonder how it is that she ever left London – so I wanted to show her what theatrical feasts Bristol has to offer. Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory (SATTF) gave me more than I could possibly have asked for.

John Shrapnel was brilliant not only because of the gravitas of his voice, but also because of his astute characterisation. Although it has received mostly rave reviews, A Younger Theatre critic, Edward Franklin, said the play was without a singularly magnetic king. I have absolutely no idea where he was coming from – Shrapnel stunned with his movement from apathy into an almost knowing madness. His well-worn phrases came out fresh, as if he had just thought of them.

The soundscape was used magnificently .The thunderstorm reverberated around the space, embracing the action and acting as a divider in time, between Lear and his fall to madness, which came later than how it is habitually staged. His normally distracted questioning of Poor Tom about whether his condition was the result of giving all to his daughters was spoken coolly and rationally. His insistence on talking to the philosopher and learned Theban sounded knowingly sarcastic rather than delirious. He reappeared after the storm with flowers in his hair, raving about mice and cheese, appearing truly mad only when he stuck his hand down his trousers, indicating the location of the ‘Sulphurous pit.’

The grotesquely behaved sisters, Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer- Bennett), were acted with great skill, injecting comedy as well as venom into the haul of ghastly characters, and making Lear seem incredibly human and admirable in comparison. Interestingly, his retinue is hugely diminished as soon as he puts himself at the mercy of his daughters. The role of Cordelia is a slightly thankless one, in that she disappears for most of the play, but Eleanor Yates was delicate to the point that I shed a tear at her reunion with Lear, made all the more tragic by his sudden flash of lucidity and strength.

Christopher Staines has to act various different roles in one, since he moves in and out of disguise. I found it a little odd how disparate his commanding performance as Tom O’Bedlam was, in comparison to that of his original role as Edgar, where he seemed a little stilted, even uncomfortable. Edmund, played by Jack Whitam, who looks strangely like my image of Shakespeare – look him up, it’s uncanny – was wonderfully devious and lacking any moral compass at all. Sitting next to my mother throughout all of this, some of the lines – ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ – pierced my conscience with pain, although perhaps this was just my mother’s pointed elbow- jabbing, accompanied by her mouthing of all lines concerning filial ingratitude.

Based on a myth, but contextualised in England, the blind Earl of Gloucester thinks he has jumped off the cliffs of Dover but is in fact prostrate on the same ground from which he leapt, this is not a history play, and so becomes much more universal. It has contemporary relevance to autocratic regimes; the programme compares the quest for self-empowerment manifested in the Arab spring as a reaction to being, as it were, the President’s children.

This was a straightforward production, holding up almost only the text for all its wonders, although it would be foolish not to credit its realisation to the incredibly strong performances by a world-class theatre company, and the subtle, intelligent directing. I came away stunned and delighted to have a lifetime of King Lear productions ahead of me.

Originally published by Epigram