Signalling liberal moral superiority, homeless in Ann Arbor edition

From MLive Ann Arbor:

Ann Arbor’s latest homeless camp is in my backyard

There are an estimated 20 people living in tents under tarps where my family and I walk in the winter, on the trail where my late dog used to run, just steps from where my own backyard ends at Burton Road.

Ann Arbor homeless encampment image source

This story is interesting for several reasons. First, a very long time ago, my husband and I lived across the street from a church homeless shelter in Ann Arbor. The biggest issues were drunkeness – one night we watched a very drunk homeless man pounding on the shelter door after hours, yelling to be let in, then urinating all over himself – and petty theft – you couldn’t leave anything of value laying around and had to keep first floor windows and doors locked at all times. We never had any trouble with violence or intimidation but frankly I wouldn’t have wanted to chance having children there.

Homelessness has been an ongoing debate in Ann Arbor since I moved there at the tender age of 19 to attend the University of Michigan. It’s been called a “good” city to be homeless in because there are a lot of kind-hearted people willing to hand out a buck to a guy down on his luck, there are a lot of shelters and public services available, and people generally will tolerate the presence of homeless people there rather than driving them off. This has had the predictable result of increasing the population of homeless people.

When I lived at Black Elk Co-op, we tried allowing homeless “crashers” who missed out on getting into the shelters by curfew stay in our basement. We were about as liberal and leftwing and “Housing is a right, not a privilege!” as you can get, but eventually even we got tired of having our stuff ripped off; purses, wallets, even textbooks left in the morning with our “guests”. I also had a summer job working for U of M Grounds, and many large lilac bushes on campus had homeless people either camped out in them or using them as toilets, which was pretty unpleasant to clean up.

The issue right now in Ann Arbor is small tent cities of homeless people that are popping up. If you know anything about A2, you know that people there are well-educated, very liberal, elitist, and painfully competitive about signalling a “holier and more liberal than thou” stance. This combination creates a real paradox for these folks when it comes to the issue of homelessness because they (quite understandably) really, really, really do not want these dirty people who tend to steal your stuff, leave a lot of trash around, and poop in your bushes camped out in their backyards, but they can’t say so without looking like they might be less liberal than someone else. Consider this comment under the news story I linked to above:

uneven999: They need a place to stay and Id like to think we have moved beyond paupers prisons, but if you asked republicans to vote theyd say bring them back
, or slavery

So what they have to do when they talk or write about this issue is find linguistic ways to signal their liberal moral superiority while still trying to get someone to do something about the mess that is being created in their backyards.

While my neighbors and I will be accused by some of Not In My Backyard Syndrome, many others in Ann Arbor convey relief that they don’t have to deal with it.

I’ll argue the NIMBY slurs as shallow, given how long many people actually lived in that camp during warmer months with full knowledge of neighbors. And I’ll challenge anyone in the city who expresses relief: Nobody wants to live next to the piles of trash and human waste that a tent city can generate, but it shouldn’t be celebrated if you don’t.

Beyond that, though, I keep coming back to the complexity of homelessness. I’m grateful that this community has the Delonis Center shelter, and enough volunteers to make a visible difference toward feeding and sheltering people in need. I also just can’t imagine the need ending. And that makes me sad.

Well, if it makes her sad, then that’s okay then! She (entirely understandably) is asking for someone to get these people out of there, but since she feels bad about it, we know that she is a good liberal and should not be judged.

If you want to play along at home, here is my handy how-to guide for signalling liberal moral superiority when what you really are after is conservative (i.e. common sense) in nature:

1. Make sure you audience knows that you have a personal connection to the issue (It’s right in my backyard!).

2. Do some intellectual probing of the issue to prove your educated, elite status (cite statistics, interview an expert).

3. Show case how much empathy you have for this issue and people (I’m just worried about them out there in the cold. How can we help them?)

4. Leave unstated that how you want to help them is by helping them away from you and into someone else’s backyard. If you can’t leave it unstated, make sure to turn it around onto the other person (You wouldn’t want poop in your hydrangeas either! Don’t judge me! I voted for Barack Obama, too, you know!)

4 thoughts on “Signalling liberal moral superiority, homeless in Ann Arbor edition

  1. I really do sympathize with the woman (Mrs. Gardener) who wrote the Ann Arbor MLive article. She entirely reasonably is freaked out by having these folks in her backyard. And I have no doubt that she feels really bad for them as well. And she has to convey both these sentiments in a very judgmental left-wing community. She’s trying to walk a tight rope here, poor lady.

    I feel bad for the homeless folks too, but the thing is, they don’t have the right to be there. There are shelters they can stay in, and if they don’t want to do that, they don’t just get to create housing for themselves on private or public land. It’s not safe for them and it’s not safe for people living near them. Sometimes people have to be told, “No. You cannot do that.” Liberals are terrified of saying “No, your behavior is not acceptable and you must stop.” But in this case, that is what needs to happen. But no one living in Ann Arbor dares to say that because they would be ostracized from polite society if they did.

    Liberal tyranny at its finest…


  2. When i lived in California, it became obvious that working poor were only one paycheck away from this. There are so many ways to incur misfortune.
    I don’t know what to tell you. So many things have been tried.


  3. There are different types of homeless people. One type, like you mention Fuzzie, are the working poor who for whatever reason don’t have family to fall back on if they lose a job. That type is different than the type in this story, which are people (usually single men) who for whatever reason (often including mental illness, but not exclusively) simply prefer not to live with family or in shelters and who are either unable or unwilling to provide housing for themselves. They prefer to stay outdoors. I don’t necessarily have a problem with the idea, except it should be clearly understood by everyone that they have no “right” to camp wherever they want.

    I’m pretty sympathetic to the working poor folks, probably because I come from working poor stock. Economic insecurity was always a component of my family life, but I never feared being truly homeless even though my parents were often on the verge of losing their home because we had family that we could have stayed with.


  4. When I lived there, whenever I had contact, the thought passed, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”.
    There do seem to be more of them than in times past.
    How do they survive Michigan winters?


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