In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women and how society tries, but ultimately fails to truly help the women survive and rejoin society. Our system for helping those in need, especially the homeless, is inefficient, ineffective, overly invasive, and ultimately fails to provide what people actually need. We have a system that provides limited government support that is hard to access and hard to understand. We provide what we think homeless people and people in need want, or what we want to provide them, not what they necessarily need.
Liewbow has an explanation for why we have a system that operates so poorly, “That we tolerate these system malfunctions can be understood in part as the end point of two streams of public thinking about the poor. One is that many poor people are not deserving of public support; the other is fear of giving them too much support and encouraging dependency.”
One of the things I have noticed in my own efforts to help support those in need is that what I think I should give people is not always what they actually need and want. Rather than giving panhandlers money, I prefer to give them some type of in-kind donation, often some type of non-perishable food item. I used to buy nutritious and calorically dense granola bars, but what I learned is that people who are asking for money often don’t have teeth or don’t have good oral hygiene and cannot actually eat a granola bar. Nor can they eat apples, healthy sandwiches, and other food items that I would prefer to give them rather than cash that I fear they may spend on alcohol. I’ve settled by providing Nutrigrain bars and similar soft yet somewhat nutritious food items that I can keep in the car.
My story shows how there is an element of paternalism in the way that we approach the homeless. We assume we know what is best for them and provide what we think they need, we don’t always take into consideration what they can actually use, carry with them, and what they would prefer. For me, this has been a learning process to be more useful with my support, even if I am still not giving them money which would be most useful. However, for many people, homeless people are not seen as deserving of any aid, and consequently those who help them become overly paternalistic. Any aid is provided on the conditions of the donor, with little consideration for the needs of the poor and homeless. If someone won’t take that aid then it further demonstrates that they just are not worthy. I think my experience of trying to give the homeless apples and granola bars demonstrates that this paternalistic approach and calling people unworthy demonstrates the shortcomings of such a view and approach.
The second aspect of Liebow’s quote is that we don’t want homeless to become dependent, so we chose to give them the minimal support necessary to survive. The theory suggests that we shouldn’t allow them to be too comfortable, or they won’t try to fix their own lives. We don’t want to offer them too much support, or they may just come to expect aid and assistance rather than accepting that they must work and be productive. Somehow we think that desperation, starvation, and the pain and shame of homelessness is the right way to get people to work and be productive. We would rather see people wasting away on the streets than living in acceptable conditions and receiving food, money, and shelter provided by the government. Dependency runs against the American ethos that so many of us adopt, and we are unwilling to help those need beyond the bare minimum that we can do to keep them from dying in the streets.