Support in the United States is typically only given to those who are viewed as deserving. People who lose their homes in unpredictable natural disasters, people who are targeted by criminals, and those who simply had bad luck but were otherwise hardworking are worthy of help and assistance. Those who seem to just be lazy, who made poor decisions, were gullible, or who used drugs are not seen as worthy of our time or charitable efforts. The consequences of this plays out in homeless shelters and on the streets of our country every day. Without society feeling a need to help people who are viewed as deviant and unworthy, the role of supporting these individuals falls to the altruists, some church groups, and the families still willing to provide second chances. Often, any aid provided by these groups is conditional and temporary.
“Just as some women are homeless because their families can no longer support them, other women have little or no family support because they are homeless,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am. People lose social and familial support and can end up homeless. However, homelessness itself is often a reason for why support is taken away from people. Whether we are trying to support people because they are family, because we feel altruistic, or for other reasons, at a certain point any aid or assistance that we provide begins to feel useless. At a certain point, we cut people off and demand that they help themselves before we help them any further. Homelessness begets homelessness in this scenario as aid and assistance is taken away from those who need it most.
It is fine to believe that homelessness is a cost to the individual who becomes homeless, that it is a consequence of their bad behaviors and poor decisions, and to imagine that we are not responsible for the homeless individual. It is fine to decide that we won’t help them if they won’t help themselves. It is fine to decide not to help people who use drugs, drink to excess, and refuse to take the necessary steps to work and live as a productive member of society. But in doing so, we should be aware that these individuals did not become derelict in a vacuum. They were part of a society that failed at some point to direct them in a more productive way, to help them feel connected, to help them find meaning in their lives. We should also note that refusing to help individuals still pushes a lot of costs back onto ourselves and our societies.
At a gut-level, I don’t like the idea of simply providing housing, cleaning and sanitary services, counselors, and whatever else is needed to homeless individuals and potential drug users without requiring them to get their lives back on track. I don’t like thinking that developing a system that provided a comfortable life without any effort for everyone might encourage more people to drop out of society and become useless druggies wasting their time away on the social supports and services of others. But I also don’t like that we treat the homeless like a plague, that we simply wish they would vanish, that we force them into dangerous situations on the streets where they could freeze overnight, die from heat exhaustion during the summer, and could be victims of crimes simply because they were defenseless and existed. I also don’t like that we will spend millions on emergency room healthcare costs, on police and jail costs, and have blighted sections of our cities because we won’t help the homeless by paying the up front costs to provide people housing and jobs. When I consider all the alternatives, giving the homeless a place to live, a care taker to watch over them, and helping provide basic sanitary services for them seems better than allowing the homeless to rot in the streets. I can’t imagine how anyone could ever come back from the streets, but perhaps more people could come back from a life where they are provided safe and sanitary spaces, even if we don’t think they deserve the effort it would take to provide such a life. I think we should at least try to treat them with dignity and give them a place where they can find dignity within themselves if they ever want to turn things around. Either way, we all live on this planet together, and we all create society together, so we cannot escape the costs of the homeless or wish the homeless away.