Monday, November 10, 2014

VOXXI: Helping the homeless, from Ft. Lauderdale to Latin America

"Helping the Homeless, from Ft. Lauderdale to Latin America"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
November 10, 2014
Originally published:

In a very bizarre turn of events, several Floridians have been arrested for feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale. The draconian law that prohibits feeding the homeless in public places is an initiative to boost tourism to the city and support local businesses, but it is now under fire for its immorality.
Sadly, poor and homeless people are treated as ghosts, not only in Florida, but throughout Latin America.

The law in this South Florida city states that feeding zones must be 500 feet away from residential property, and food-activists must seek permission from owners of nearby buildings. The goal is to protect tourism, as the city’s economy is dependent on it. Amidst much opposition from enraged citizens, Mayor John Seiler has come out on local TV in support of the law that got the feeding volunteers arrested–arguing that the feedings need to be done in an orderly manner, following the law.
Nevertheless, 90-year old veteran Arnold Abbott has defied this ruling, and has continued to feed the homeless, which he has done for over 23 years, according to him. His story quickly went viral after he was cited a second time for his charitable actions.

Latin American ghosts of homelessness

A government’s relationship with its homeless and poor citizens is complicated. Certainly, there are plenty of government-sponsored initiatives that provide assistance to people in need, but there are also several citizen-created initiatives.
Case in point are the famous “comedores populares” (communal cafeterias) in Peru. These were created in the 1960s by poor people who came together to improve their living conditions; the goal of the comedor is to cook large quantities of food that can feed a small community. The Peruvian government and donor institutions have supported the comedores, which can now be found throughout the country.
As for government-sponsored social programs, one worth highlighting is MiBono. This a program that was started by the Guatemalan government in 2012 via which the state gives poor families 300 Quetzales every month, with the condition that this money must be utilized for health and educational purposes. According to the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre, some 757,000 poor families benefit from this initiative.
However it seems that for every positive initiative a government carries out, there are several others that impact poor and homeless people.
This was most recently demonstrated in Brazil, as the government expelled thousands of poor citizens living in favelas (shantytowns) and throughout unoccupied buildings in order to “clean up” the cities that hosted the recent FIFA World Cup. According to reports, some 250,000 poor Brazilians lost their homes in the twelve cities that hosted this global event.
Unfortunately, these initiatives will continue for the foreseeable future as the Brazilian city of Rio will host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Just this past April, some five thousand poor Brazilians were forced by police to leave an unused lot, including an abandoned building, in which they had set up their improvised homes.
Who to Help?
Poverty in Latin America cannot be discussed without addressing racial issues as indigenous citizens tend to occupy the lower echelons of society. Hence, discrimination against poor people in the region is a type of racism as well.
Ironically, even a well-intentioned action can quickly become bizarre and even racially insensitive. This was most prominently demonstrated in late 2012 in Mexico, when a driver took a picture of a poor little girl that was begging for money. The fact to keep in mind here is that the girl was white and blonde. The child’s photo quickly went viral, with Mexican authorities interviewing the child’s parents as people pondered whether the girl had been kidnapped, as her parents were darker-skinned than she was.
The speed with which authorities and people in general discussed the child’s situation sparked a debate about racism in Mexico. According to recent statistics, there are some six million families that live in poverty in Mexico but public outcry only started when people saw a white child begging, whereas darker-skinned begging children are an everyday occurrence and hardly a source of discussion.
A similar situation occurs in Peru, which experienced a major demographic shift due to the civil war of the late 1980s and early 1990s – the conflict forced thousands of people from the Andes to migrate to Lima in order to escape the violence. These essentially internal refugees started their lives all over again, and had to live in shacks on the outskirts of major cities – these areas are known as pueblos jovenes (young towns) – and beg for money or carry out low-paying jobs, such as vending in the streets, to survive. This situation has prompted a new kind of racism in Lima and other major cities that is deeply tied to socioeconomic reasons.

What Ft. Lauderdale can learn about its homeless problem

The recent incident in Florida has brought to light once again how  authorities treat homeless citizens. As for Latin America, incidents occur on a regular basis that highlight the issue of poverty, such as poor people losing their homes in Brazil to improve the country’s image before major sporting events, or a begging (white) child in Mexico.
Latin America in general has enjoyed years of economic growth, but millions of people remain ghost citizens because of their socioeconomic status; lets hope that Ft. Lauderdale is not leading the pack in ignoring homeless citizens in the United States as well.

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