The other weekend I went for a run along the American River in Sacramento. California’s high cost of living and high housing prices are not as bad in Sacramento as they are in San Francisco, but nevertheless, housing in Sacramento is expensive, and many people have been displaced and become homeless. There are many homeless encampments along the American River pathway, with unsightly debris littering the river banks. I will admit, it is easy to be critical of homeless people when you are out trying to exercise and don’t want to run past garbage and homeless individuals that are a little scary. I was tempted, while I was out trying to exercise and do something good for my health and well-being, to criticize those who were homeless and making my run less enjoyable.
But I don’t think homelessness is entirely the fault and failing of individuals. What I remembered while running is that homelessness doesn’t reflect just individual failure, but societal failures as well. At some point we failed these people. We failed to help them have safe and healthy homes to grow up within. We failed to provide them with support, counseling, and treatment of addiction or mental health disorders before they became homeless. We failed to help them find some sort of purpose or meaning within their lives to give them a reason to make the difficult choices necessary to succeed in America.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow makes the following proposition: “Homelessness is no longer a matter – if it ever was – of a few unfortunate winos or crazy people falling through the cracks of our vaunted safety net. Indeed, homelessness is not an individual matter at all. Homelessness today is a social class phenomenon, the direct result of a steady, across-the-board lowering of the standard of living of the American working class and lower class.”
We become so focused on ourselves as individuals and prize individualism so highly in the United States that we have failed to see how larger structural forces and systems shape our lives and the lives of others. If someone is poor and cannot afford housing, then we simply think they need to move to a part of the country with lower housing costs. Or we think they need to find a different job, develop new skills, and make something better of their lives. We don’t see how high housing costs, minimum wage jobs with no guaranteed health benefits, and societal disrespect have made people feel helpless and isolated. We don’t recognize that employers are taking advantage of low-wage employees, instead we criticize the low-wage employee for being in such a situation to begin with.
I think that Liebow is right, as much as I am tempted to be critical and judgmental at times. Homelessness is not something that just happens to a couple of bad apples, lazy individuals, or derelict drug addicts. If that were the case, the banks of the American River in Sacramento would not be so predictably crowded with homeless encampments. Homeless has become a larger phenomenon that we cannot address simply by telling the homeless to get clean and get to work. It is a societal failure, and if we want to criticize the homeless for failing in their personal responsibility, we have to acknowledge our own personal responsibility in creating a society and system that doesn’t fail those at the bottom.