It is fashionable in Missoula at this moment to blame every petty nuisance on the Rainbow Gathering. That annual conflation of freedom and self-indulgence met near Dillon, Montana earlier this summer, and much of the overflow has lived in Missoula ever since. Specifically, they live in Caras Park and outside the grocery store. The sight of a dozen twentysomethings lying in the park drinking beer every day should not bother me, just as being asked for money whenever I buy milk is not really an inconvenience. All I need to do is ignore it. Yet somehow, I am bugged.
Evidently I am not alone. The state just spent $17,000 to clear out a longtime transient encampment on the west side of town, under the Reserve Street bridge, ostensibly to make the river more accessible to fishermen. Don’t read the comments on that or the Rainbow article unless you want to fall into a misanthropic spiral. There is nothing like learning internet commenters’ attitudes toward the homeless to make you feel bad about your own. It is the ethical equivalent of going to a Wilco concert and seeing all the dads.
The idea that we need to “take this town back from the bums” or that “this is the kind of people the Pov[erello Homeless Shelter] attracts” is repugnant to me. There is no way in which homeless people are getting a sweet deal from society. They enjoy no advantage over the person with a bed and/or a job. As enemies of the homed person, they are so thoroughly defeated that any ill feeling toward them constitutes disdain, or contempt, or any of the other pity/cruelty-spectrum emotions that so often make Nietzsche distasteful. ]
If you hate bums, you are probably a shitty person. Yet here I am, wishing that there were not always a few guys living in the picnic shelter at Kiwanis Park. I get angry when I take Stringer to the dog park and he comes running out of the brush with toilet paper. And I would like to be able to go to the grocery store without telling another human being who has obviously been sleeping on the riverbank that no, I will not give him the money that I intend to spend on organic spinach.
Maybe that is the crux of the problem: homeless people routinely force me to enact a failure of my own ethics. I waste a lot of money. I’m not buying gold chains and drive a probably unsafe car, but I am certainly spending beyond the level of necessity. I could easily give a dollar to everyone who asks, but I don’t—partly from habit learned in New York, but mostly because I am reflexively selfish. No, you cannot have my money for free, because that’s not how it works, even though I claim to wish it did work that way.
The Rainbow Gathering people bring this problem into relief, because they are homeless by choice. While I’m sure a percentage of Rainbows were forced into the lifestyle by socioeconomic conditions, most of them are transients as part of their idiotic value system. Everything should be free and no one should have to do anything, is basically the Rainbow ethos. It’s an airtight moral philosophy provided you are a small child, and it poses no threat to my conscience. I have no problem turning down a Rainbow panhandler, because according to my values his decision to reject society relieves me, The Man, of any obligation to support him.
I would like to believe the same thing about ordinary homeless people. “Most of them don’t even want jobs,” is the most common argument deployed by people who hate bums, because it puts said bums in the same category as the Rainbows. In fact, most of them are mentally ill, or have substance abuse problems, or fell into the vortex by which you can’t pay the rent if you don’t have a job and pretty much can’t get a job if you don’t have a home. While it is conceivable that some transients are homeless by choice, the terms of the choice are so unpleasant that almost no sensible person would opt for them.
In other words, the homeless deserve compassion by virtue of their condition, not because of the narrative behind it. The Rainbows are such welcome scapegoats because they offer a rare exception to this rule; their condition is an expression of their freedom to construct their lives in purely negative terms. For the rest of us, who construct our lives in terms of what we do, the homeless are vexing because they force a decision. We can help them, which takes work one way or the other, or we can put off living our values. I generally believe in helping people, I say to myself outside the grocery store, but not today.