Tuesday, February 16, 2010

History and Homelessness by Howard Zinn

Historian, teacher, author Howard Zinn died Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at the age of 87.  Mr. Zinn was a scholar advisor to Give US Your Poor for the planning process of the documentary film by the same name about homelessness in the United States.  Below is an excerpt of the statement he submitted to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities in support of that project (we worked on sections together, any clunky stuff is clearly mine). We post now in remembrance and appreciation of his work and generosity. - JM

BY HOWARD ZINN:  ...I have always been interested in examining history from the perspective of the rank and file. Most history books give the perspective from the top: from elected officials, industrialists, people of power and importance. Indeed, the sources are much more available for this approach: journals kept by educated men and women, documents, official biographies.

But there are also sources, though more difficult to find, which represent the conditions of life, and even the thinking, of those at the bottom end of society. It is the history of these people which needs very much to be told. And while important decisions are made by the authorities in any culture, the momentum for these decisions usually comes from below, from the movements of oppressed people.

The "homeless" are among the most neglected of this underclass, those left out of traditional histories of the United States. We get rare glimpses of these people in history through a folk song or a biographer's description of George Washington passing the homeless on a trip through Philadelphia. The impression is left that there were no "homeless" until the Great Depression, that this temporary condition of widespread poverty was remedied by the New Deal, and that it only reappeared in the 1980s. That view would lead us away from understanding the structural base of homelessness, as a permanent phenomenon in the nation's life. The result would be complacency and inaction.

The Declaration of Independence says we are all created equal, that we all have rights that cannot be taken from us - the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But these rights have never been applied to the homeless, and this film should lead people to think about that. The right to pursue happiness is meaningless if people do not have the resources for a happy life: food, a home, health care, satisfying work.

The Bill of Rights operates differently for rich and poor. The right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is different for a family living in a mansion than for a family living in a housing project, or out on the street. We should look beyond the Bill of Rights to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that all people, everywhere in the world, are entitled to work and decent wages, to holidays and vacations, to food, clothing, housing and medical care, to education, to child care and maternal care.

There have been books, articles and films that examine homelessness. But they have not had a significant effect on the national consciousness. A film on homelessness in America would make an important contribution to the history of the underrepresented in American society.

My role as advisor is to help ensure that "Give Us Your Poor", as a historical work, presents the perspective of those Americans who have been struggling simply to have a place to live. My hope is that the film will raise consciousness about homelessness, thus leading viewers away from the notion that it is an acceptable part of American life. By looking at homelessness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we may learn something about how to deal with it today.

This film is a humanities project because it is steeped in history. It is not simply the history of public policy, but the history of people struggling for a place to lay their head and fight for dignity. It is the history of the American people and their answers over time to the question: "How do we treat our fellow citizens when they are most vulnerable?" To answer this question is to get at the heart of a humanist approach to the problems of society.

For more information on Howard Zinn's career and life visit http://www.howardzinn.org.


April said...

Nice that there is so much thought devoted for the homeless.yes they need to be cared for and given support.

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Not Homeless Now! said...

National Consciousness would be an interesting example of Systems Thinking. Perhaps a bit too large a grouping of sectors but worth looking at none the less.
A more manageable part of that grouping would be to address the creation of the Bill of Rights. What was once apparent and considered obvious ...SAFETY, somehow does not apply to the Homeless. They are not treated as if they have an inalienable right to pursue safety , a precursor to happiness.
A systems /ecological look into the relationship these two inalienable rights have would reveal them joined at the hip,a connection which I believe proves worthy proof the Homeless are denied their rights.
History belongs to those that write it. Creating myths can also result in sophisticated smokescreens.

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