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Empathy Amid the “Fake Tales of San Francisco”*

This time last week, @manosdaskalou and I were in San Francisco at the American Society of Criminology’s conference. This four-day meeting takes place once a year and encompasses a huge range of talkers and subjects, demonstrating the diversity of the discipline. Each day there are multiple sessions scheduled, making it incredibly difficult to choose which ones you want to attend.

Fortunately, this year both of our two papers were presented on the first day of the conference, which took some of the pressure off. We were then able to concentrate on other presenters’ work. Throughout discussions around teaching in prison, gun violence and many other matters of criminological importance, there was a sense of camaraderie, a shared passion to understand and in turn, change the world for the better. All of these discussions took place in a grand hotel, with cafes, bars and restaurants, to enable the conversation to continue long after the scheduled sessions had finished.

Outside of the hotel, there is plenty to see. San Francisco is an interesting city, famous for its Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars which run up and down extraordinarily steep roads and of course, criminologically speaking, Alcatraz prison. In addition, it is renowned for its expensive designer shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. But as @haleysread has noted before, this is a city where you do not have to look far to find real deprivation.

I was last in San Francisco in 2014. At that point cannabis had been declassified from a misdemeanour to an infraction, making the use of the drug similar to a traffic offence. In 2016, cannabis was completely decriminalised for recreational use. For many criminologists, such decriminalisation is a positive step, marking a change from viewing drug use as a criminal justice problem, to one of public health. Certainly, it’s a position that I would generally subscribe to, not least as part of a process necessary to prison abolition. However, what do we really know about the effects of cannabis? I am sure my colleague @michellejolleynorthamptonacuk could offer some insight into the latest research around cannabis use.

When a substance is illegal, it is exceedingly challenging to research either its harms or its benefits. What we know, in the main, is based upon problematic drug use, those individuals who come to the attention of either the CJS or the NHS. Those with the means to sustain a drug habit need not buy their supplies openly on the street, where the risk of being caught is far higher. Thus our research population are selected by bad luck, either they are caught or they suffer ill-effects either with their physical or mental health.

The smell of cannabis in San Francisco is a constant, but there is also another aroma, which wasn’t present five years ago. That smell is urine. Furthermore, it has been well documented, that not only are the streets and highways of San Francisco becoming public urinals, there are also many reports that public defecation is an increasing issue for the city. Now I don’t want to be so bold as to say that the decriminalisation of cannabis is the cause of this public effluence, however, San Francisco does raise some questions.

  1. Does cannabis cause or exacerbate mental health problems?
  2. Does cannabis lead to a loss of inhibition, so much so that the social conventions around urination and defecation are abandoned?
  3. Does cannabis lead to an increase in homelessness?
  4. Does cannabis increase the likelihood of social problems?
  5. Does the decriminalisation of cannabis, lead to less tolerance of social problems?

I don’t have any of the answers, but it is extremely difficult to ignore these problems. The juxtaposition of expensive shops such as Rolex and Tiffany just round the corner from large groups of confused, homeless people, make it impossible to avoid seeing the social problems confronted by this city. Of course, poor mental health and homelessness are not unique to San Francisco or even the USA, we have similar issues in our own town, regardless of the legal status of cannabis. Certainly the issue of access to bathroom facilities is pressing; should access to public toilets be a right or a privilege? This, also appears to be a public health, rather than CJS problem, although those observing or policing such behaviour, may argue differently.

Ultimately, as @haleysread found, San Francisco remains a City of Contrast, where the very rich and the very poor rub shoulders. Unless, society begins to think a little more about people and a little less about business, it seems inevitable that individuals will continue to live, eat, urinate and defection and ultimately, die upon the streets. It is not enough to discuss empathy in a conference, no matter how important that might be, if we don’t also empathise with people whose lives are in tatters.

*Turner, Alex, (2006), Fake Tales of San Francisco, [CD]. Recorded by Arctic Monkeys in Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, The Chapel: Domino Records

San Francisco: A City of Contrast

Golden Gate Bridge

Haley Read is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first and third years.

Often when I visit different cities around the world, I notice that huge contrasts in the standards of life experienced by others are ‘plain for the eye to see’ within such small spaces.

What seems interesting is that inequality between the rich and poor are striking within western countries that are often perceived as being quite wealthy, ‘forward thinking’ and technologically advanced. This brings me to my recent trip to San Francisco, a city partly characterised by the beautiful red Golden Gate bridge which is situated near a beach where sun kissed, athletic and healthy-looking San Francisco residents seem to spend their free time socialising, sailing on boats, walking their pedigree dogs and playing sports. Of course, the view of the isolative Alcatraz prison to the East of the bridge dampens the illusion that San Francisco is a city which has historically upheld progressive and rehabilitative ideas. Whilst today, within this very same space, and more evidently, within a few blocks walk from this location, residents experience life in a very different manner. Many individuals are homeless, have significant physical and mental problems, the occasional prostitute hangs around attracting business and drugs are taken and offered out to passers-by. And on that very same red bridge many individuals attempt to and/or take their own lives out of desperation. So, for me, San Francisco exemplifies a city that is steeped in inequality.

In fact, a recent United Nations (2017) report points to high housing prices, the lack of social, educational and healthcare services for poorer Californian populations and tough responses to issues of homelessness and petty crime as being key to the increasing and continued levels of inequality within cities such a San Francisco. Last week in seminar sessions [CRI1007] we discussed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What appears interesting here is that despite an international agreement that every individual should have a Right to Life, domestically, San Francisco’s approach to the provision of social and medical care for individuals results in the lesser quality and length of life for poorer populations. As in San Francisco the Right to Life is limited, as the city does not seem to be obliged to protect individuals who may die due to ill mental or physical health, the lack of medical insurance or the numerous experiences of poverty.

Prior to visiting San Francisco, I was quite excited to revel in its famous music scene and its picturesque charm. Yet, despite it being a fantastic place to visit that is full of eccentricity and character, the sombre tone of the city was made blatantly clear. I did however, leave feeling incredibly grateful for non-government organisations and communities who often provide for those who are viewed as being ‘deviant’ and not worthy of help. Such as the Gubbio Project, which, with the help of volunteers and public donations, provides Church shelter and basic provisions for the homeless. However, it is clear that a greater amount of support is required for the poorer residents of San Francisco.

 

Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

Homelessness: Shedding an unfavourable light on a beautiful town!

Presentation1

Let me start by apologising for the tone of this blog and emphasis that what follows is rant based on my own opinion and not that of the university or co-authors of the blog.  On 3 January I was incensed by a story in the Guardian outlining comments made by Simon Dudley, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead’s Conservative leader, regarding homelessness and the impact (visually) that this could have on the forthcoming royal wedding. Mr Dudley commented that having homeless people on the streets at the time of the wedding would present “a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light” and that “Windsor is different and requires a more robust approach to begging” (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018, online). Unfortunately, I am no longer shocked by such comments and have come to expect nothing less of Conservative leaders. I am however profoundly saddened that such a deep rooted social issue is brought back into the spot light, not because it reflects wider issues of inequality, disadvantage, poverty, or social exclusion that need addressing but because of a class based narrative driven by a royal wedding. Is Windsor really in need of special treatment? Is their experience of homelessness really worse than every other city in the UK? Or is simply that in an area with such wealth, and social connection, showing the world that we have a problem with homelessness is taking it a step too far. Whatever the reason, Shelter’s[1] (2017) tweet on the 29 December reminds us that homelessness is ‘…a crisis we are not handling as a country’.

As we approached the Christmas period it was estimated that children experiencing homelessness had reached a 10 year high with headlines like ‘Nearly 130,000 children to wake up homeless this Christmas’ (Bulman, 2017) marking our approach to the festive season. Similarly, Shelter warned of a Christmas homeless crisis and as the temperatures dropped emergency shelters were opened across London, contrary to the policy of only opening after three consecutive days of freezing temperatures (TBIF, 2017). Yet the significance of these headlines and the vast body of research into the homelessness crisis appears lost on Mr Dudley whose comments only add to an elitist narrative that if we can’t see it, it isn’t a problem. My issue is not with Mr Dudley’s suggestion that action is needed against aggressive begging and intimidation but with his choice of language. Firstly, to suggest that homelessness is a ‘sad’ thing is a significant understatement made worse by the fact that the focus of this sadness is not on homelessness itself but the fact that it undermines the tone of an affluent area. Secondly, the suggestion that the police should clear the homeless from the streets along with their ‘bags and detritus’ (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018) is symbolic of much of the UK’s approach to difficult social issues; sticking a band aid on a fatal wound and hoping it works. Thirdly, and more deeply disturbing for me is the blame culture evident in his suggestion that homelessness is a choice that those begging in Windsor are ‘…not in fact homeless, and if they are homeless they are choosing to reject all support services…it is a voluntary choice’ (Dudley, cited in Sherwood, 2018). Homelessness is complex and often interlinked with other deeply rooted problems, therefore this blame attitude is not just short sighted but highly ignorant of the difficulties facing a growing proportion of the population.

Shelter. (2017) A safe, secure home is a fundamental right for everyone. It’s a crisis we are not handling as a country [Online]. Twitter. 29 December. Available from: https://twitter.com/shelter?lang=en [Accessed 4 January 2018].

Sherwood, H., (2018) Windsor council leader calls for removal of homeless before royal wedding. The Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/03/windsor-council-calls-removal-homeless-people-before-royal-wedding [Accessed 04 January 2018].

The Big Issue Foundation. (2017) TBIF joins the Mayor of London’s Coalition to tackle rough sleeping [Online]. The Big Issue Website. Available from: https://www.bigissue.org.uk/news [Accessed 4 January 2018].

[1] a charity offering advice and support to those facing or experiencing homelessness

 

“A Christmas Carol” for the twenty-first century

Christmas Carol

The build up to Christmas appears more frenetic every year, but there comes a point where you call it a day. This hiatus between preparation and the festivities lends itself to contemplation; reflection on Christmases gone by and a review of the year (both good and bad). Some of this is introspective and personal, some familiar or local and some more philosophical and global.

Following from @manosdaskalou’ recent contemplation on “The True Message of Christmas”, I thought I might follow up his fine example and explore another, familiar, depiction of the festive period. While @manosdaskalou focused on wider European and global concerns, particularly the crisis faced by many thousands of refugees, my entry takes a more domestic view, one that perhaps would be recognised by Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) despite being dead for nearly 150 years.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

One of the most distressing news stories this year was the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 71 people lost their lives. [1]  Whilst Dickens, might not recognise the physicality of a tower block, the narratives which followed the disaster, would be all too familiar to him. His keen eye for social injustice and inequality is reflected in many of his books; A Christmas Carol certainly contains descriptions of gut wrenching, terrifying poverty, without which, Scrooge’s volte-face would have little impact.

In the immediacy of the  Grenfell Tower disaster tragic updates about individuals and families believed missing or killed in the fire filled the news channels. Simultaneously, stories of bravery; such as the successful endeavours of Luca Branislav to rescue his neighbour and of course, the sheer professionalism and steadfast determination of the firefighters who battled extremely challenging conditions also began to emerge. Subsequently we read/watched examples of enormous resilience; for example,  teenager Ines Alves who sat her GCSE’s in the immediate aftermath. In the aftermath, people clamoured to do whatever they could for survivors bringing food, clothes, toys and anything else that might help to restore some normality to individual life’s. Similarly, people came together for a variety of different celebrity and grassroots events such as Game4Grenfell, A Night of Comedy and West London Stand Tall designed to raise as much money as possible for survivors. All of these different narratives are to expected in the wake of a tragedy; the juxtaposition of  tragedy, bravery and resilience help people to make sense of traumatic events.

Ultimately, what Grenfell showed us, was what we already knew, and had known for centuries. It threw a horrific spotlight on social injustice, inequality, poverty, not to mention a distinct lack of national interest In individual and collective human rights.  Whilst Scrooge was “encouraged” to see the error of his ways, in the twenty-first century society appears to be increasingly resistant to such insight. While we are prepared to stand by and watch the growth in food banks, the increase in hunger, homelessness and poverty, the decline in children and adult physical and mental health with all that entails, we are far worse than Scrooge. After all, once confronted with reality, Scrooge did his best to make amends and to make things a little better. While the Grenfell Tower Inquiry might offer some insight in due course, the terms of reference are limited and previous experiences, such as Hillsborough demonstrate that such official investigations may obfuscate rather than address concerns. It would seem that rather than wait for official reports, with all their inherent problems, we, as a society we need to start thinking, and more, importantly addressing these fundamental problems and thus create a fairer, safer and more just future for everyone.

In the words of Scrooge:

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!” (Dickens, 1843/1915: 138)

[1] The final official figure of 71 includes a stillborn baby born just hours after his parents had escaped the fire.

Dickens, Charles, (1843/1915), A Christmas Carol, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co.)

“Letters from America”: II

Lange-MigrantMother02

Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.

Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and  commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.

Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?

The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.

This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.

I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.

 

 

Failing the Vulnerable

Greg is a BA Criminology graduate of 2017 and was motivated to write this blog through the experience of his own dissertation. His dissertation was on the Experiences of Homelessness, Victimisation and Criminalisation.

Keep your coins

Since 2010 homelessness has more than doubled, rising each year and showing no sign of decline. Such statistics signify the governments failure to help those most in need and vulnerable as well as the government’s unsuccessful and ineffective policies. In addition to the rise in homelessness, affordable housing in London has also fallen by 98% since 2010, coinciding with the rise of homelessness. As homelessness has increased, so has victimisation. This is mainly due to their exposure and perceived vulnerability on the streets as most of their victimisation is hate crimes as they are scapegoated for the structural problems in our society.

Prior to writing my dissertation I knew there was relatively high rates of victimisation amongst the homeless, however nothing would prepare me for the participants’ experiences and stories, providing me with incite into the lives of the homeless; the despair and desperation when rough sleeping and surviving as well as the misfortune and harm they experienced throughout. Participants would explain being urinated on, spat on, verbally abused as well as feeling criminalised, stigmatised and marginalised, with all such phenomena interlinking together. What was evident in their stories was the extent of the damage to self-esteem and identity the experiences of homelessness can do to a person. After being utterly and brutally damaged by the public, council and poor services they isolate themselves further as they ‘give up’ on seeking help from services and reject any form of support as they feel ‘undeserving’ or feel it will not lead to anything. In addition participants explained how they felt like second-class citizens, that they were not treated like humans. I found that the homeless are extremely sensitive and vulnerable, much of how you treat them has extensive effects on their sense of self-worth. What was beautiful to see was the tremendous appreciation they had for services that provided them with adequate and effective support, giving them the confidence to excel as they felt they had found their identity and were not shackled to the stigma of homelessness, no longer isolating themselves.
The subject is indeed a delicate one and services and society in general must treat the homeless with compassion and empathy, and also be sensitive to their reality, interpretations and meanings of their experiences. It is not a black and white issue, it is more complex than that, and for services to work they must tailor to their subjective needs and be aware of the different experiences. Although they may experience similar phenomena, it cannot be generalised to fit a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. For example, I met addicts, refugees, victims of domestic violence and many other different pasts that led to homelessness.

Perhaps we should not question people’s individual circumstances and moral failures but instead protest and reject the never-ending austerity and terrible social and economic decisions we have had for over a decade.

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