In his main story on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver tackled the growing homelessness crisis in America. According to the surely undercounted government estimate, over a half-million people are currently unhoused, with the economic effects of the ongoing pandemic all but ensuring that number will grown for the fourth consecutive year, and Oliver played local news clips of how homeowners are dealing with the attendant problems caused by burgeoning homeless populations in their area. As one woman in Austin, Texas is shown explaining, “Every time I have to pick up human shit, my liberalness gets lowered.” It’s an understandable sentiment Oliver nonetheless skewered with his typically big-picture examination of just how badly we as a society have failed to comprehend the scale of the homelessness issue, while simultaneously punishing those most in need of, say, a safe place to take a shit.
Sure, as Oliver notes, nobody likes human excrement. But when, for example, Los Angeles locks up its facilities during the nighttime, and when there are only 55 such relief stations left to service the some 36,000 unhoused human beings in the city, well, the shit is going to pile up somewhere. Oliver examined how the predominant municipal approach of criminalizing everything associated with homelessness is, indeed, some deeply offensive shit. From spiked and partitioned public spaces to discourage sleeping and sitting, to playing “Baby Shark” and that “Raining Tacos” song (which Oliver admitted is a bop) all night to ensure hideous, auto-tuned nightmares, Oliver lambasted the idea that we can “arrest someone out of homelessness.”
And don’t get him started on the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) types who inevitably swarm public hearings whenever affordable housing or homeless shelters are brought up. It’s really a good idea to think twice before standing up in front of local news cameras to spout your narrow-minded and uncharitable thoughts on the less fortunate. You never know when a sardonic Brit with an Emmy-winning late-night show will make you famous for proclaiming your distaste that people “who are not of the same class as us” will move into your neighborhood. (And, as Oliver notes, you should really not imagine that prefacing your NIMBY nonsense with, “I’m definitely not racist and not a bigot, but...” will scrub the stink off of you.)
But it’s not just securely uncharitable (predominantly white) homeowners who came in for Oliver’s cheeky wrath, as the host looked back at the likes of Ronald Reagan famously decrying people being homeless “by choice,” and once-beloved Dr. Drew Pinsky’s comments calling the homelessness crisis “a hoax” as emblematic of the larger problem of stigmatizing the unhoused. Listing off the multifarious ways people can become homeless (addiction, mental health, domestic violence, job loss, being thrown out of your house for being LGBTQ, medical debt, post prison-release bias), Oliver scoffed at the whole “up by your own bootstraps” mentality of those smugly assured that they are better than their homeless neighbors because they’ve been more fortunate. Calling America’s current expanding homeless population “a failure of pubic policy we have made,” Oliver mocked the idea that the prevailing approach “to punish them for their existence and keep them out of sight” is typically both cruel and shortsighted.
“Your discomfort is enough to disqualify a person from the American dream,” Oliver quoted formerly homeless mother Kianna K. Scott’s letter to her local paper, in response to the NIMBYs in her town. As Oliver noted, the stigmatization of those most in need often crosses that supposedly intractable red-blue divide, with the most liberal enclaves often shown as hotbeds of dismissively Scrooge-like sentiments and draconian laws against allowing homeless people to literally sit down, camp out, or have to attend to their inconvenient bodily functions. (Again, if you’re planning on basing your on-camera NIMBY pitch on the hypothetical economic consequences for your neighborhood’s sushi joint, perhaps reexamine your life.)
Of course, Oliver notes, there are proven methods to more beneficially and humanely address the fact that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are without shelter, but that would involve shifting resources away from bulldozing homeless encampments and jailing people for sleeping. And, as Oliver notes, that, in turn, would involve Americans abandoning their perspective that people less fortunate than they are somehow less worthy of comfort, or that homelessness indicates moral failing. Or, to put it more succinctly, Oliver says, “We need to stop being dicks.” Funny how many of Last Week Tonight’s stories end up at the same conclusion.