Sunday, August 27, 2006

Homeless in New York City

Having missed my connecting flight from JFK in New York City to Johannesburg, I have found myself homeless in the city that's open 24 hours. But even more striking for someone with my worldview are the numbers of homeless people on the streets of New York City, well known as capitalism's freemarket capital of the world. Homeless people are literally every where, on the sides of the streets, sleeping on cardboard boxes in juxtaposition to the world fame of The Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, and the Penn metro station.

I lay no claim to having discovered homeless people in the world's largest and most well known city, as these issues have been written about by countless journalists, academics, fiction and non-fiction writers before. However I can't help asking myself how come with the unparalleled advancement of capitalism and wealth creation, this great city, and many others, cannot find a lasting solution to human desolation and homelessness? I saw similar conditions in downtown San Fransisco, another great American city, in April. And homeless people are to be found in many major cities around the world. We have homeless people even in Malawi's major cities, Blantyre and Lilongwe, but the reality is that the bigger and wealthier the city, the worse the problem.

The systemic conditions that lead to problems such as these are the same conditions that rendered me homeless last night. The captain kept announcing that we were waiting for clearance from air traffic controllers at JFK to depart Cincinnati and head for The Big Apple, as New York City if fondly called. Our flight was supposed to leave Cincinnati at 2.12pm, but we didn't leave until 3.12pm. The confusion and sprawl that is JFK International Airport meant that I had to move from our landing terminal, get onto the AirTrain, and find the terminal for the flight to Joburg. As my luck would have it, the gate number printed on my ticket, 25T, does not exist at JFK, as I later learned after half an hour of moving from terminal to terminal.

Finally, I found the desk of the airline I was supposed to connect with, and I stood there for another hour, waiting for somebody to come and attend to me. When she finally came, she told me the desk had closed for the day. She advised me to go back to the original airline that booked my ticket to rebook. There I asked where they would put me up for the night, and I was told the airline had no control over air traffic control, and it was not their responsibility to pay for my accommodation. I was forced to part with a considerable amount of the little money I had just to find a prison-cell sized hotel room in downtown NYC, near famous spots such as Broadway, The Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden.

With the most recent restrictions on what you can and cannot put into your carry-on luggage, this means buying a fresh tube of toothpaste, which you will use once and throw away as you can't take it with you on the plane. The same goes for liquid deodorant, for those of us who sweat like pigs at an open air show.

In the capitalist world, you can pretty much be on your own if you are poor, in a system whose grip and control on your life determines every move you make. The systems are all interconnected--airlines, air traffic controllers, hotels, the metro, but once you are out in the lurch, and you are not wealthy, you can be dumped by the very system like a bag of trash from a skyscraper. The very system that leaves you desolate in a big city like NYC is the very one that creates the many homeless people bundling themselves up on the sidewalk, drenched from the midnight drizzle of August.

Sooner or later I'll land on Malawian soil, and will witness exactly the same phenomenon, a system in which a few people manage to get ultra rich, the majority ultra poor. Since we are all trained to attribute success to individual effort, and desolation to individual lack of, the giant wheels will keep turning, fulfilling the biblical promise that the poor will always be with us. Only, in my case, the poor will always be us.

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