No, Mr. DeMartini, Homeless People are not Bums

There’s a lot to unpack in Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini’s recent comments about homeless people, but let’s start with his claim that they’re “bums.” Not too long ago, most any high school senior could have recognized such an assertion as a hasty generalization, but after decades of talk show bombast and free market propaganda, too many people agree with DeMartini, no matter how much evidence to the contrary.

Included in that evidence is study after study showing that from one fifth to one quarter of homeless people are seriously mentally ill. Only a willful ignorance permits sick people to be labeled “bums.”

Veterans constitute about 12% of the nation’s homeless population; though post-traumatic stress disorder is now recognized as a common consequence of military service, for people like Jim DeMartini, that’s no excuse for being, “a burden on society.”

Almost forty percent of homeless people are disabled, with many of them housed temporarily in shelters. Even a casual observer who makes a quick visit to a homeless shelter will see an inordinate number of wheelchairs, just as anyone paying even a bit of attention will see wheelchair-bound homeless people in our parks and on our sidewalks. They’re homeless because disability payments don’t cover rent and other necessities.

It’s true that a certain percentage of poor people have chosen homelessness over work, but it’s not necessarily because they’re “bums.” It’s because even those lucky few who might make as much as fifteen dollars an hour can’t make ends meet in states where rising rents have priced them out of their homes.

Average rent in Jim DeMartini’s Stanislaus County — generally considered a bargain in comparison to the Bay Area — is over $1200 a month. At $15 an hour, take home pay is around $27,000 a year. Over half the wage earner’s salary goes for rent at that income, and even when it goes up next year, California’s minimum wage will still be less than $15 an hour.

At Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter
Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter, 2019

The United Way’s Real Cost Measure, “estimates the amount of income required to meet basic needs for a given household in a specific community.” In 2017, 40 percent of Stanislaus County households — 53,663 in total —fell below the Real Cost Measure. 98 percent of those households had at least one working adult.

When people’s incomes aren’t enough to meet basic needs, they compensate. They miss meals and subsist on poor diets. They avoid doctors and Emergency Rooms, even when they’re very sick or injured. Their children miss school so they can help out in homes where both parents work. They go to work during a pandemic because they can’t afford to miss even one paycheck. It’s amazing how many manage to avoid homelessness, given their economic stress. Nonetheless, some end up on the streets.

Children reared in poverty suffer measurable brain damage and are more likely to experience clinical depression than children from financially stable families. When the City of Modesto permitted homeless people to camp in Beard Brook Park, two of the earliest applicants were young men who wanted to put their tents, “Where our [deceased] mother had hers.”

According to Jim DeMartini, the cycle of poverty is due to defects in character; homeless people are “bums” who should be jailed. The fact is, many homeless people are elderly and retired after a lifetime of work; their Social Security benefits just aren’t enough to cover California’s high housing costs.

Younger homeless people are already frequent visitors to local jails, most often for crimes like petty theft, trespassing, and drug use. As a rule, time in jail does nothing to alleviate the damage done them through the stress of extreme poverty, and their criminal record makes it less likely they will find employment. They’re often doomed to homelessness well before their prime earning years.

Alfie downtown Dec 2020
Downtown Modesto, December, 2020

Demonizing poor people has a long history. It was accelerated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s as part of an attack on government in general and especially welfare and social services. Reagan’s “trickledown” economic theory postulated that reducing government services and lowering taxes on the wealthy would bring about an economic boom that would reduce poverty when wealthy people became job creators.

Today, after decades of tax reductions, loopholes, and corporate giveaways, wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Before 2010, the American middle class held more wealth than the top 1 percent. Today, the top 1 percent holds more household wealth than the entire middle class.

Absent mitigating factors, concentrating more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands leads to a great many people lacking enough money for minimum subsistence. That’s what’s happened in America.

During the 1950s and 60s, when Mitt Romney’s father was CEO of General Motors, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Like many wealthy executives, George Romney turned down opportunities to earn more money when it meant entering the higher tax bracket; his highest tax rate at General Motors reached 44 percent. Homelessness in George Romney’s day had declined so much that most professional observers predicted it would be ended altogether by the 1970s.

In 2012, when he ran for president, Mitt Romney refused to release more than one tax return. The return he did release showed he paid at a rate under 15 percent. The homeless population at that time was over 600,000.

Modesto, Kearney Avenue, Dec 2020
Modesto, December 2020

While we can’t argue that tax cuts had a cause and effect relationship to homelessness, we can safely say they didn’t do anything to diminish it, nor did they result in equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth.

Ronald Reagan’s trickledown dogma was never justifiable in the world of facts; even George H.W. Bush called it, “Voodoo Economics.” It’s taken decades of relentless propaganda and anti-tax hysteria to sustain belief in an economic system that enabled corporate executive officers’ pay to grow 1000 percent over the last 40 years, so that they now make 278 times the pay of their workers.

Depending on one’s definition of “bum,” it’s true some homeless people fit the category some of the time. It’s also true that some wealthy people cheat on their taxes. The tax cheats almost certainly cause more harm than the bums, but in our brave new world of inverted values, tax cheats are smart and people whose incomes aren’t enough for food and rent are lumped in with bums and criminals.

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he owned six homes, including a $12,000,000 beachfront property in La Jolla. It’s hard to argue that paying taxes at a higher rate would cause him measurable harm; his father did fine at 44 percent.

In fact, progressive tax rates and a more equitable distribution of wealth throughout the nation would undoubtedly benefit the vast majority of the American people, especially the shrinking middle class.

One negative effect might be on the top 1 percent, who would likely have to buy smaller yachts. Even some of our less wealthy but still rich citizens might be reduced to owning 8 or 10 cars instead of 40 or 50. A few might even have to fill their wine cellars with hundreds of bottles of rare vintages instead of thousands. That would be a real tragedy.



Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
Comments should be no more than 350 words. Comments may be edited for correctness, clarity, and civility.


  1. As with many of the under-educated “progressives”, the author of this article obviously has never taken a course in Economics.

    The answer is not in higher tax rates, more government spending on social programs and increased stipends for the poor; it’s in education reform! When a child leaves the mandated minimum education cycle, that child must have demonstrated an ability to further themselves towards a profession or have
    a marketable skill.

    If taxes are increased, as the writer suggests, the result is the loss of revenue for the government; that is a fact hard to understand for those that declined to take an Econ course! We are the beneficiaries of a Free Market system in which we are all “free to chose’ whether we will, or will not, do most everything; that includes paying taxes when there are alternatives available, usually with the stroke of a computer key.

    What the writer does not understand is that the “top 1 percent paid a greater share of individual income taxes (37.3 percent) than the bottom 90 percent combined (30.5 percent). The top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a 26.9 percent individual income tax rate, which is more than seven times higher than taxpayers in the bottom 50 percent (3.7 percent).” [See:]
    If you increase the “capitalist’s” tax burden, he/she can then choose to either move his business and/or himself to somewhere where that burden is lower or choose an accountant skilled in sheltering taxable income some other way, legally.

    Now, the writer of this piece will probably answer that the government should take steps to prosecute those that make those choices; this is the inevitable consequence of the socialist state.

    Mr. DiMartini is an over-achiever from an era when ‘homeless people were called “hoboes”, “bums” or ‘retired dentists’ by some. We all have decisions we must make albeit some are incapable of making the better ones. However, in our system, every person can qualify for some form of stipend or government assistance, if they are able to order themselves to make those necessary choices themselves; Sadly, many cannot.

    Therefore, as almost all of these people are either substance abusers or mentally ill, we must return to the time when we enforced laws designed to promote the greater good for the larger number.
    The state and local governments should select an adequate place to build a facility, then contract with qualified NGOs to manage it to a point that we can clear these places and process all inhabitants with an ideal of either returning them as productive individuals, capable of contributing to society as well as caring for themselves, with some marketable skills or institutionalizing others in treatment programs whether they chose so, or not.
    All lives have meaning. If an individual cannot care for themselves then they must be a burden on us all. It is past time that we address the problem, head-on.

    As it is now, only bureaucrats benefit from these ‘programs’. If we just continue the spending on them we only will see an increase in bureaucracy; the homeless will suffer, forever.

    • I agree. If more of the homeless had marketable skills, those pesky issues like schizophrenia or amputation would never slow them down.

      Perhaps we could organize a swap program: Trade in your wheelchair for an Econ textbook.


      CONTRARY TO THE HIGH VALUE you apparently place on your ECONOMICS course, THERE ARE MANY who DO NOT VALUE what is passed off as economics.

      If you want to talk about PERCENTAGES, perhaps 10% of what is taught in an economics course, is even worth REGURGITATING.

      EXCUSE the rest of us, if we DO NOT FIND the value you placed in your subjective, abbreviated synopsis of who you deem as under-educated, not understanding, socialist, able to qualify for some form of stipend or government assistance, and, almost all substance abusers or mentally ill.

      IS THIS WHAT SOMEONE TAUGHT YOU, in economics, or did you figure all of what you claim above entirely on your lonesome?

      WOW, you could have done us a favor and saved us from such a debbie downer.

      Adolf Hitler processed his thoughts about certain people in such a cut and dry way.

      You could have began and ended with your statement: “All lives have meaning” and spared us your “head on” economics course calculations of what A LIFE means to you.


      If you meant to share something helpful, reread your comment, and revise, please.

    • While Eric Caine may be guilty of not having a Ph.D. in Economics, much of what he cites here about the history of taxation, the increasing income disparities and the fraying fabric of our social safety nets (certainly including the homeless and mentally ill) can be found in the works of people with solid credentials in the Dismal Science. Try reading “Saving Capitalism” by Robert B. Reich or his latest book, “The System: Who Rigged It and How We Fix It.” His work is succinct and quite readable, without reams of statistics and charts. A recent article in the Harvard Gazette by French economist Thomas Piketty addresses some SOLUTIONS for economic disparity that include raising tax rates on the mega-wealthy —

      And, by the way, Mr. Losh — what are your own credentials in Economics that underpin your econ tutorial? A Ph.D., perchance?

  2. Isn’t it interesting how people who have had no contact with homeless persons know so much about them? Given the number of homeless, any generalization beyond the fact that they are homeless is inaccurate and unhelpful to the discussion. Every homeless person has a story to tell. The reason for the condition varies widely.
    But rather than blame homeless people for their plight, society would be better served by making the effort to prevent home loss and finding ways to get homeless back into homes. Economics is a theory. The economy is reality.
    Self proclaimed Conservatives love to bash those who are sympathetic to abating homelessness. They represent the Marie Antoinettes of our society. They enjoy their privilege while relishing in the suffering of others and deserve to be ignored.

  3. I agree, Terrence. If the homeless had been taught marketable skills, they would never be hindered by pesky things like schizophrenia or amputations.

    I suggest an exchange program. We can swap their wheelchairs for Econ textbooks and some work boots.

  4. It is past time that we address the problem, head-on. Maye we should start with our Preamble to our United States Constitution to guide us:

    We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

    • Forgive us, JE

      But your comment was too general for many of us to know how you would address the problem, head-on, starting with applying the Preamble to our United States Constitution to quide us.

      No intention here of being difficult, simply asking for you to expound on your comment. We know these are touchy times…

      Of course, you know what you mean, yet, for the rest of us, we need clarity.

      Would you please say more…

  5. So sad! There are so many stories as to why people are homeless and they can’t be stuffed under one heading, folder or label. Learn about society please!

    • Agreed.

      Housed people do not simply wake up one day and decide to move outdoors. Nor to willingly trade their owned or rented home in for a card board habitat, etc.

      It will benefit society to dwell on the multiple causes that lead up to homelessness, other than harp on mental illness, addictions, and desire to be disenfranchised…

      Lets consider, also, the fact that the majority of rental owners, and their lawyers, act as though certain that their eviction suits, regardless of the tenants’ strong affirmative defenses, are guaranteed to eject their tenants. WHY ARE EVICTIONS OR NEGOTIATED OUTCOMES TO “JUST MOVE” SO FAVORABLE TO RENTAL OWNERS?

      Think outside the box, beyond the common knee jerk answer that the tenants brought it all upon themselves, when they did not pay rent. ANSWERS ARE SELDOM SIMPLE BUT ACTUALLY MUCH MORE COMPLICATED

      Ever heard of the term SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP? It can be witnessed as it takes place WITH REGULARITY in the Superior courts, between the rental owner’s attorney and the lower court judges. Do tenants JUSTICE and research how UNFAIRLY eviction trials are processed, day in and day out. AN INCIDIOUS ASSEMBLY LINE IN PRACTICE, TO SAY THE LEAST

      Appellate courts are quite familiar with the necessity of over turning the lower court’s JUDICIAL OVER REACH. Unfortunately, few tenants have time to Appeal.

      INSTEAD, they are busy frantically searching for another place to live, ALL THE WHILE SUFFERING THE TRAUMA OF HABPVING TO MOVE, even though they had adhered to every Landlord-Tenant statute, which should have caused a meritorious outcome for the tenants, rather than a win for the rental owner.

      Were the judges not to choose, with intention, to willfully DISREGARD the merits, for the sake of the rental owner, the county faces the CONSTERNATION of rental owners, and, THE THREAT OF WITHDRAWING THE RENTALS FROM THE MARKET

      ADD TO THIS CURRENT REALITY: the fact that once evicted, due to an Eviction on a tenants record, the only rental owners who will rent to them are guaranteed to be SLUMLORDS, who over charge for their rentals, that fail to be Fair Market Valued.. HENCE, THE VICIOUS CYCLE GOE ROUND AND ROUND.






  6. Is it against the law or at least totally inconsiderate to the very people you claim to want to help, to take their picture without asking permission? Is it something you would like published for friends and family to see when you had no real interest in discussing the actual plight of homelessness with the very people you photographed, again with no knowledge or permission, which has no bearing on your actual article? As a displaced homeless citizen of Modesto, the person you have illustrating your obviously nice gesture of an article has made it clear to me-she would rather have been informed you were right there during a tough time that only came to her from my seeing it on Facebook? She has a son that is out there and her wanting to remain anonymous in such a culture as Modesto’s loving and caring Christian folk( who NEVER demonize and harass people who have had a tough time in life,) perhaps you should be a bit more compassionate. And next time ask her about her story, she gladly would have let you take a picture and tell you what you need to know.

    Thank you,

    Anastasia Rego

Comments are closed.