As I reread the quote for today’s post and the supporting paragraph for additional context, my first thought was simply to write about the importance of transportation to jobs and how overlooked transportation can be for those who have well functioning cars and the resources to maintain and repair cars. For many of us who live in suburbs, our Nation’s public transportation infrastructure is largely invisible and unknown. I was going to write about the ways in which our ignorance of public transportation has failed people in need and people at the lower socioeconomic levels, ultimately crushing the idea that people are poor and homeless simply because they are dumb and lazy. I was going to argue that we should be more considerate and push back against the American individualism we prize so highly if we are successful.
But instead, I’ll reference that idea in my opening paragraph and focus on the complexity of the world around us and use this post to explain why so many people prefer not to think about homelessness and poverty. The challenges are too complex for anyone to fully grasp, and the solutions are not always obvious.
In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “It is also likely that the limits of public transportation directed women toward lower-status, lower-paying jobs, since these tend to be the jobs best served by public transportation. Those sleek, stand-alone buildings around the Washington Beltway, for example were far less accessible by public transportation than were lower-paying jobs in fast food and retail establishments stretched out along main arteries in the downtown areas.”
Liebow explains that homeless women are often able to be presentable and work decent clerical jobs in offices that could help them find their footing and begin to build the stability needed to find a place to live. However, getting to these kinds of jobs is often difficult. Bus lanes don’t always get out to the office parks where such jobs exist, and I know from my own experience in cycling around Reno, NV that sometimes bike lanes don’t go to the office parks or industrial centers where stable low-wage jobs exist. Instead, getting to a fast food restaurant, where hours may be unpredictable and pay may be even lower, is often easier for those experiencing homelessness. If you live in a shelter and have to be inside the shelter by a certain time each evening, lower pay and lower security jobs may end up being your only option.
We want the homeless to find jobs, but we also want to live in suburbs and have our offices relatively close to our homes, especially if there is no real reason for our offices to be located in a downtown center. We want to have ample parking at the office and wide avenues for us to drive down to reach our destination quickly. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t want the things that make it easy for homeless individuals to reach the same places where we work (this may even be by design though few would want to admit it). Addressing the challenges of homelessness may mean making changes to the systems that housed and working people count on to make their lives marginally easier – a tough sell.
To truly tackle the issue of homelessness we need to think about the kinds of jobs available to people, but job availability is often driven by huge and complex market forces. As individuals we are all trying to scrap for our own jobs and job security, and we don’t want to give up either to help another person – especially if we see that other person as less deserving than ourselves. Where our jobs are located is sometimes driven by where the employees live, sometimes driven by local taxes, and sometimes driven by other factors (like good internet and a well connected airport). People need to have jobs to escape homelessness, but jobs are unpredictable and respond to more forces than even a strong government agency could control.
I think people who really want to help end up crushed by the complexity of homelessness. This jobs example is only one aspect of the complexity of homelessness that may leave those who want to help feeling like there is nothing they can do. We want people to work, but finding and maintaining a job, especially a solid job that allows for personal growth is not easy, especially for those who have not been working. With so much complexity it is not surprising that many people simply avoid thinking about the issue, or adopt oversimplified views of homelessness, its causes, and its solutions. The reality, however, for those who wish to make a difference in the world of homelessness, means that multiple complex factors all need to be considered and navigated in order to get more people into stable housing. Multiple factors have to be addressed in tandem before we can really address the housing and homelessness crises that our nation faces.