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..:: Samanas ::..


Alan Schneider


              Numbered among the countless spiritual traditions in India is the phenomenon of the homeless begging Seer. Frequently referred to as Samanas, these individuals often own literally nothing, and may even go naked as an expression of their utter disdain for all things material in the world.  Begging for food or alms is a method of training for, and a condition of induction into, many established Ashramic facilities in India, as is the practice of numerous other harsh austerities. All of these methods of discipline have in common the goal of deemphasizing the material orientation in consciousness by negatively associating awareness of the body – the physical shrine of the material condition – through the imposition of heightened suffering, possibly a form of behavior modification, but certainly a most affective one.  It was (and is still) felt by many of the traditional Seers and Yogis that what assaults and degrades the flesh is intrinsically  capable of freeing the spirit by default, at least when conducted within the greater rubric of a well-defined system of Ascension techniques. Those who are able to withstand this gauntlet of suffering are revered in Hindu culture as having mastered the tyranny of the flesh, body, illusory Maya, and the Physical Plane. 

            By comparison, the Western religious ideologies, while still appreciating the spiritual value of many austerities and self-imposed restraints of several varieties, tend to emphasize the legitimacy and primacy of materialism and its attendant creature comforts. One end result of this underlying materialistic theme is seen in the Occidental attitude toward the condition of homelessness. In the West in general, and in America in particular, the homeless individual is seen as the lowest, most disreputable of persons, worthless and contemptible in every regard. The possibility of voluntary sacrifice demonstrated by the homeless condition for the attainment of a higher consciousness or purpose does not even exist in the West. Instead, we persecute, defame, and even kill the homeless beggar, who, in most cases, also has no concept of the possibility of grace that may exist implicitly in his condition, could it only be viewed in a higher light.  

            In response to the plight of the homeless in the West, many agencies and individuals have taken up the cause of ministry to their circumstances. This is a brief vignette of one such person working here, in Arizona – Randall Amster. Arizona is one of the worst states in the nation in terms of its record of homeless abuse and persecution.  

            Amster is a well known advocate for the homeless in Arizona. He has been active in this venue for well over fifteen years, organizing programs and action on behalf of the homeless population here and elsewhere around the country, and giving speeches and presentations in support of this population of individuals, whom many consider to be both pathetic and hopeless. 

            Amster began one such recent presentation with a look at the world perspective on the gentrification process. Gentrification is currently a preferred approach to urban renewal. Private investors are directed to disadvantaged areas by city planners in urban areas, in the frequently-validated hope that they will finance redevelopment. Since the homeless tend to populate such areas, they are subsequently forced out into other disadvantaged locations, which are also subject to gentrification eventually. The net impact around the world of this process is the continual removal of the “commons” areas everywhere, depriving homeless people of the only physical spaces in which they can exist. This activity is frequently driven by international corporate interests who may actually have an openly hostile attitude toward the disadvantaged in local communities, and certainly tend to be unsympathetic in any case. This continual movement from one area to another, and yet another, is known as “the March to Nowhere” among the homeless.  The practice of gentrification is becoming increasingly popular as a method of urban restructuring, and is very harmful to the homeless.  

            The central issue present here concerns the democratic process in local operation. The availability of public space as a support for this process is critical. Privatization of land ownership and use threatens not only the disadvantaged in a community, but regular functional citizens as well. It comes down to this: if all or most of the literal space in an area is unavailable for public meetings, due to gentrification/privatization, the democratic process becomes severely restricted at the grass roots level. Since this is the growth edge of much free activity, including free speech, the reality supporting all freedom is functionally, progressively destroyed. 

            This basic theme is supported by both chronological and topical support. The chronological approach tracks the gentrification process from it’s beginnings in the San Francisco Bay area approximately twenty years ago to the present time, around the world. The topical method expands on this historical approach, to include the full range of homeless issues, such as the relative unavailability and overcrowding of shelters in urban locations (Tempe, for example, has no shelters), the lack of medical and legal support for indigents, poor or absent nutrition, mental health concerns (many of the homeless originally were “released” from mental institutions during the Reagan presidency), clothing, casual (if any) employment availability, and re-education. These conditions of food, clothing, shelter, and education are seen as basic features of life by most of us, but are frequently absent in the lives of the homeless.  

            Numerous articles from various local newspapers and national periodicals verify these claims. Several issues are specific to Tempe and Mill Avenue, such as the unavailability of public restrooms (all of the restrooms on Mill Avenue are subject to private control), the little-known system of cameras (known as “The Sneaky Pete” system to those who disapprove of such measures) that blankets Mill Avenue 24-7, and the Sidewalk Initiative. This latter is a particularly questionable measure in which the sidewalks are “leased” to the local merchants as their venue by the city, granting them control over even this area of space. The thrust of development in Tempe under the present administration has been to convert the admittedly neglected character of Mill Avenue into a “Downtown Fantasy Land” (from the Downtowner, Nov/Dec 2000), a fantasy which pointedly does not include indigents, and caters to the upper income brackets in the area. Have we no compassion at all? Apparently not... 

            A number of activist counter measures have occurred in recent years to resist the privatization on Mill Avenue, including the recent organization of Project S.I.T. – Sidewalk Initiative Team. The personnel of S.I.T. publicize the conditions on “The Mill”, support the homeless who go there with a variety of services, and monitor the ever-present police interventions against them. The function of homeless dispersal frequently falls on the police, and it is one which they tend to dislike, but will perform anyway. The “Broken Window” theory has evolved in the last few years as a justification of police intervention against the homeless. This theory holds that enforcement against “low level” crimes (e.g. graffiti, broken windows, refuse) tends to function as a “high level” deterrent against more serious crime. Although there is little or no evidence in support of this contention, it is nonetheless (and understandably) very popular among development advocates. This theory has now become a standard of law enforcement organizations everywhere. 

             An additional measure has been created in the defense of the homeless on and around Mill Avenue in the from of a website: The Freedom of Information Times site at http://www.foitimes.com/tempe.htm. This site collects and disseminates information regarding transient issues in Tempe and surrounding communities.   And Amster has done very well in his attempts to focus attention on the local, national, and international homeless situation. He has consistently called for action regarding further intervention in the plight of the homeless through community support on all levels, including letter writing to public officials, shelter support and construction, and food, clothing, and medical program development.  

            The homeless are frequently seen as a blight on Western society at large, with the result that they are responded to with repression, not compassion. The homeless  condition is being criminalized now, as never before, in the wake of increasing gentrification around the world. Gentrification really amounts to the “commodification” of life everywhere, negating the humanity of all people, but particularly the homeless among us. As the current world economic crisis continues to escalate everywhere, the ranks of the dispossessed follow suit. Are we all doomed to join in “the March to Nowhere” eventually? Or will mercy and compassion prevail?  I personally have always sided with the compassionate in this question, and now more than ever. Whether we know it or not, we are all facing the world crisis together, and our survival as a species may well depend on action that acknowledges this, and supports the world human community at all levels in compassion and caring. 

                                                            Supporting Reference Material

                        1) “The Downtown Tempe Fantasy Land”, The Downtowner, Nov/Dec 2000.

                2) “The City May Privatize Sidewalks”, by Angela Romano, The Wildcat Online, 1998.

                    3) “Officer Suspended for Refusal to Enforce Against the Homeless”, L.A. Times.

                                    4)  Vol. #01, The Homeless Task Force Report, 09/01/2000.

                    5) “Homeless Enforcement Practices”, The East Valley Opinion, March 03, 2000.


                                                                                 - With Love, Alan -

                                                              (Copyright 2009, by Alan Schneider)


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