Life underground

Fabius Maximus tweeted an amazing series of links yesterday to articles about people literally living underground in US cities. Few manifestations of homelessness really surprise me, as opposed to merely saddening or disturbing me; these did.

The preceding link is to an article summarizing the others that Fabius Maximus publicized. The tone of this summary article is m0re breathless than it need be, as might be expected from a blog called The Economic Collapse, and it jumps to some of its conclusions in a manner that might be considered paranoid or conspiratorial, but if nothing else it’s fun reading, and quite illuminating to boot. The other caveat to keep in mind is that it’s probably erroneous to imply that these underground encampments are uniquely American or solely the result of uniquely incompetent and cruel US social services policy. I’d be quite surprised, in particular, if there are no such encampments beneath Paris, which has a renowned community of egoutophiles, who might be called “sewer lovers” in English, and a homeless problem of its own, which the authorities have been known to address by rounding up transients and busing them to the suburbs.

The “Tunnel People” may be down-and-out addicts and losers, but they’re damn well resourceful. Some of the people living in the storm drain system of Las Vegas (estimated at about 1,000 in all) have outfitted their living quarters with beds, closets, office chairs, and bookshelves, usually elevated on crates for protection from runoff. Check out the pictures. One of the couples living in this environment supports itself in part through “credit hustling,” i.e., collecting gambling credits that absentminded gamblers have left on slot machines: not particularly honorable, perhaps, but it takes some gumption.

Another population, known locally as the “mole people,” lives in access tunnels fronting passenger rail tunnels in Midtown Manhattan. According to the New York Post, “Travolta, originally from the Dominican Republic, claims to have lived in these dark, rat-infested spaces beneath Manhattan for the past 20 years.” The other John Travolta owns a Boeing 707; this one uses a 7:15 am train as his alarm clock.

The most enterprising group of tunnel dwellers, however, is probably the group that was recently evicted from a network of apparently hand-excavated tunnels on the northeast side of Kansas City, MO. Police and social services believe that infants were being raised at that site because they found soiled diapers there.

The Kansas City and Las Vegas cases are unconscionable for another reason: these cities have lax housing markets. In contrast to New York, housing supply exceeds demand in these cities. To be succinct, and maybe a bit pat, about it, the original failure to house the residents of the underground encampments in Las Vegas and Kansas City is not a logistical problem, but a cultural and policy problem. I fear that it is one that will not be fixed until Americans stop thinking of housing as an investment and start thinking of it as a utility.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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