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6 September, 2018 00:00 00 AM

The carnival of homelessness

The situation has deteriorated in one country in particular known for having a well-functioning social safety net system: Germany
Binoy Kampmark
The carnival of homelessness

An aggressive sign of an affluent society can usually be gauged by its invidious misuse of its privilege. Poverty is deemed necessary, and the rich must try to understand it. To be privileged is to be guilty, a tickling of the conscience as the pennies pile up and the assets grow; and from that premise, efforts must be made to give shape to the forgotten, and, in most cases, the invisible.

To be guilty is a spur for works that supposedly highlight those nagging reasons for feeling guilty. You might supply donations. You can become a philanthropist. You can join a charity. Obscenely, you can become a creature of mocking persuasion, a person of pantomime: you can assume the position of a poor person, a homeless person, and pretend to be him. And let it be filmed.

“When I was given the opportunity to spend 10 days experiencing different forms of homelessness for an SBS documentary, I jumped at the chance to understand more about a crisis that now sees more than 116,000 Australians homeless on any given night.” So go the words of veteran thespian Cameron Daddo, a person who never explains how understanding Sydney’s poverty leads to results, other than spending time on the screen and proving rather awkward to boot.

The individuals involved in the tawdry Australian spectacle Filthy Rich & Homeless have various reasons for participating. They have a chance, not merely to appear before the cameras, but to explore another part of Sydney. What matters for Skye Leckie is the anger of authenticity. Socialite that she is, she does not believe that her participation in the venture is “poverty porn” despite being the very same creature who benefits from having a good quotient of poor around. “Those who say it’s stunt TV are being totally ignorant to the homeless situation out there.” This is a delicious way of self-justification, a positioned blow to excuse how her exploitation of a social condition is entirely justified by a mysterious, holy insight. Her pantomime, in other words, is heralded as genuine.

They can be seen almost everywhere in cities across Europe: homeless people forced to live on street corners, often covering themselves with sleeping bags. The only protection they have against the cold concrete of city sidewalks is often a thermal mat, though many do not even have that, using newspapers or cardboard instead. For them, rain, snow and continuing sub-zero temperatures across Europe are a life-threatening aspect of everyday living. And the problem is getting worse — the number of homeless or displaced people in Europe has grown over the last few years.

The European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) confirmed as much when it recently published its third Overview of Housing Exclusion in Europe. The shocking tenor of the study that FEANTSA compiled together with the French Abbe Pierre Foundation, which cares for the homeless, is that the social crisis is worsening and the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider.

Over the past several years, every country in Europe — with the exception of Finland — has seen a drastic increase in the number of homeless as well as in the cost of housing. Data from individual countries is calculated according to different metrics and is therefore difficult to compare, nevertheless, it all points to a very unsettling overall trend. Among those counties with the highest increases in homelessness were England (up 169 percent between 2010 and 2016), Ireland (up 145 percent between 2014 and 2017) and Belgium (up 96 percent between 2008 and 2016).

Those countries that have seen the most dramatic increases in housing costs are Bulgaria, England, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Poland. Across Europe, homeless people die some 30 years sooner than the rest of the population. On average, they live on the streets for 10.3 years.

The situation has deteriorated in one country in particular known for having a well-functioning social safety net system: Germany. According to the FEANTSA study, some 860,000 people in Germany were homeless or had no place of residence in 2016. That suggests a 150 percent increase between 2014 and 2016.

Roughly half of low-income households in Germany spend more than 40 percent of their income on housing. Only two other countries, Bulgaria and Greece, require citizens to spend more to have a roof over their heads. The European average is 42.1 percent. The study defines "poor" as those households that earn less than 60 percent of the national median income.

Germany is among those countries in which the greatest inequality exists when it comes to access to housing. "It is particularly shocking that a country that is as wealthy as Germany should be among those with the highest rates of housing exclusion," noted FEANTSA Director Freek Spinnewijn in a press release.

Benjamin Law, author and very much an identity beacon (those things help these days), played the cool cat. In such ensembles, it’s always good to have the confidently composed, the person who won’t fall for the pathos of the show. “I went to Filthy Rich and Homeless being adamant that it was only 10 days, and that I wasn’t going to cry – I felt it’d almost be insulting to people who were actually homeless.” So goes his justification for actually participating in the project: he would hold firm, stay calm, keep his tear ducts dry. “But when it’s demonstrated that this could easily be a family member, and someone you love, I couldn’t not be affected.”

The show is sugary fodder for social media masturbation, an ever so prodding tease for those who feel pangs of stirring guilt. Nonsense about “genuine compassion” and “empathy” whirl through the chattersphere, with a disconcerting gurgle of approval at the program. The implication is clear: like true porn, it produces a release, an orgiastic sensation. The poor are sociological wank fodder. In the aftermath is the little death, or should be. Such programs float on the froth of sentiment, and last longer than they should.

There are shades of the carnivalesque, as Michael Bakhtin called it, in this exercise. The tradition of the carnival, he explained, suggested alternate worlds, inverted ones where social orders might, just temporarily, be suspended. The performer, and the audience, would become one. Communal dialogue might emerge. But the participants will eventually go home; the nobility will revert to their high standing, and the poor will undress and return to their squalid, putrid existence.

Feudalism and tribalism may have made their official exit in the historical textbooks, but we still find stirrings of old custom in the media industry. The poor are there to be mocked; the vulnerable are there to be, in some form, exploited. Gone is the exaggerated chivalric code, as meagre as it was (keeping people in place), and the presumption of charity. In its place is the clawing, scraping urge of the media moguls and networks keen to capitalise upon a condition, a disability, a drawback. Poverty is visual and lucrative for all – except the impoverished.


    Eurasia Review



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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