Fear of the Homeless

Fear of the Homeless

This last week my wife and I volunteered in a kitchen to help serve meals to homeless men and women in our community. With the rise of the Delta Variant, the kitchen we volunteered at was not serving meals inside, but instead outside in the parking lot. This was the first time that we had served outside rather than inside, and the group leader chatted with us about the new format and some things to be aware of with the different serving location. It was the first Friday of the month, and as a result he warned us that some of the homeless individuals and people who came by for dinner were more likely to be using drugs or abusing alcohol for the evening since assistance checks would have just gone out. He warned us that when the kitchen switched to serving outside, they lost some control over the individuals and their things, and that a fight had broken out a few nights earlier. He wasn’t trying to scare us, just to warn us about the realities of volunteering outside rather than inside the kitchen.
I will admit, listening about the recent fight and likely active drug use of the people we were volunteering to help was frightening. I am not immune to a fear of the homeless, even though I still want to find ways to help them. Elliot Liebow would not have been surprised by my reaction. In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am he wrote, “everyone fears the homeless, including the homeless themselves.”
Fear is a big reason we don’t do more to help  the homeless. We are afraid of unpredictable people who are (or may be) using drugs and alcohol. We are afraid of people who may have mental illnesses and could act irrationally at any moment. We are afraid of people who are messy, who smell foul, and who could carry some type of disease or pest. Fear is a driving emotion related to the homeless and drives many of our behaviors. Liebow’s quote shows how common this fear is by noting that even the homeless fear each other.  With this fear comes a lack of trust and a lack of willingness to be around homeless. Without learning about the homeless, without having a chance to meet and interact with people who are homeless and needy, we fail to truly appreciate who they are, the challenges they face, and to develop any empathy toward them. Fear prevents them from reintegrating into society, and prevents us from understanding how we can best help those in need. It keeps them from connecting with each other and joining together to advocate for their needs or even help each other out. Fear locks the homeless out.
Homelessness, Temporary Assistance, and Social Costs

Homelessness, Temporary Support, and Social Costs

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.
Personal Responsibility & Failure

Personal Responsibility and Failure

In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes the following about one of the homeless women he met while researching his book, “Shirley found it too difficult and too painful to petition her children for assistance, not after she had spent years teaching them the importance of being self-reliant and independent.” Shirley represents a reality we often don’t think about in the United States. In our country we place a premium on personal responsibility. When we succeed we can feel great about ourselves, because we highlight the role of individual hard work, determination, and good judgment when we measure success. However, Shirley shows us the opposite side of this infatuation with personal responsibility – when you fail, it is all on you, and you are the one to blame. While success is understood to reflect personal virtues, failure is understood to reflect personal ineptitude or worse.
I like the narrative of personal responsibility. I like feeling good about the things in my life that have gone well. My dad came to the United States when he was 5, and grew up poor. My parents, and my uncles on my dad’s side, all made good decisions, have worked hard, and have avoided drugs and alcohol. Embracing the personal responsibility narrative feels good because it validates their lives and experiences, elevating their good character traits and decisions and ultimately elevating their social status. For me this is inspiring and has encouraged me to try to be as successful as they have been and follow their good examples.
But my parents and uncles are outliers and focusing on their story of individual success fails to acknowledge the ways that external forces can shape what is possible in someone’s life – theirs’s included. There is much we do not chose and much we cannot control that determines what is possible for us. Yes, we have to make good decisions and be hard working, but it is not all in our control. (For example, my dad and uncles are immigrants, but pass as white and one uncle answers ethnicity questions by lying and saying he is Italian – a tacit acknowledgement that not all of their success is entirely due to his own hard work and ingenuity.) Emphasizing personal responsibility, self-reliance, and independence fails to recognize how dependent we can be on others, and it can become crushing when we do fail or run into bad luck.
Shirley took her failure and homelessness personally, as a reflection of her character. She was too ashamed to ask for help, too ashamed to face her failure and look to family for assistance. When we highlight the individuals and downplay the systemic, structural, and social forces that influence our lives, then we put failure (not just success) on the shoulders of the individual. We become blameworthy for our failures, and for us to ask society, family, or friends for aid is to announce our personal failures and shortcomings.
Ultimately, I think our emphasis on personal responsibility can drive us to do great things, to try our hardest, and can reward us for grit and good decision-making. But I think we should also consider the flip side of the equation. When we fail, this narrative puts the failure entirely on us, without consideration of bad luck, larger economic and social forces, or other barriers and limits that we couldn’t control. We need to be aware of this and develop institutions that encourage the hard work of personal responsibility without crushing the individuals who fail, because we can’t be successful in absolutely everything we do, and some of us will have bad luck and face complete failure. We do not want people to be left in a position where they embody their failure and give up on hopes for improving themselves and their lives.
The Emotional Support of Family

The Emotional Support of Family

Like many people, my family is complex. I have two uncles who have finally re-connected after at least 20 years of not talking to each other. At the same time, one of those uncles and another are now no longer talking to each other even though they have been business partners for over 20 years. Half of my family doesn’t talk to the other half, and one Grandma only speaks with me, though she mostly only asks me about my siblings. The relationships are challenging, often frustrating, but like virtually all humans, we all still find emotional support in the form of family.
Regardless as to whether family members are living or deceased, whether we know our ancestors or have no knowledge of our familial roots, and whether we have close relationships with family or whether our ties have faded, we all seem to be primed to find emotional support in family and in the idea of family. I really only recently learned about the heritage of my family from my dad’s side, and while I have lived most of my life without knowing any of that heritage, I am now able to find pride in the roots of that side of my family. I also look back at my dad’s dad, a troubled man who made some bold choices to get our family to the United States, and I find emotional support in his story, even if the man was not ultimately the best role model one could have. The point is that despite the contradictions in people and in families, despite the distance in time and space that arise between family members, we hold on to our families as something special, and find support in them, even if they are not around to actually support us.
Elliot Liebow writes about this phenomenon in the case of homeless women in Washington DC in the early 90’s in his book Tell Them Who I Am. Many of the women who he met were divorced, some had kids, and many had lost almost all connections with family. Nevertheless, family, the stories they had about their families, and the ideas and memories of family gave the women emotional suppport. The women didn’t want to burden their families with their own homelessness, demonstrating a real respect for their family members who were doing better than they were. They were impressed by children whose lives were on better paths, and they even sometimes remembered former spouses in a positive light. For women who had few deep connections or meaningful relationships in their homeless lives, the past relationships and memories of deep connections still fueled them to keep moving and surviving each day.
Humans need connections and families are the first connections we form. Even though today the families we chose are sometimes closer to us than the families we are born into, our original and genetic families are still a strong force in our lives. We are predisposed to care about our families and find emotional support within them, even when they are not physically close by or emotionally near us.
Understanding Why Some Homeless May Not Want To Work

Understanding Why Some Homeless May Not Want To Work

“On one hand,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “the women desperately want and need the money, the independence, and the self-respect that most of us have come to expect from a job. On the other hand, to get a job and keep it, the women must run an obstacle course at the end of which is a low-pay, low-status job that offers little more than they have without it.” In his book Liebow explains that most of the homeless women he spoke with in his book wanted to work, or at least they saw the benefits that work would provide and wanted those things. However, few of the women he met were actually working.
Women didn’t work because it was difficult to actually obtain a job and difficult to keep a job once they had one. They were not respected during the job search process, and the jobs they landed often put them in places where customers could be rude to them, where the threat of losing the job could induce additional stress and anxiety, and where the work required such great travel and time costs that the cost benefit analysis barely made working worth the effort. For the women at the lowest socioeconomic level, jobs were seen as necessary but insufficient to improve their position in the world, and as a result some simply dropped out and decided it was not worth trying.
A point from Liebow’s quote that I think is worth exploring in more detail is how low-wage jobs available to homeless women are low-status jobs, and how such jobs don’t help integrate individuals into society. No one wants to feel like an outcast, and if we feel that what we do doesn’t matter and isn’t respected, then it is hard for us to get up, put ourselves together, and put in the effort of getting to work and sticking it out through the whole day. In our society we are all constantly looking to improve our status one way or another, and one way to increase our own status is to diminish the status of others, creating a bigger gulf between us and them, even if our status doesn’t actually raise. Relative to those who lose status, we look better. I think this is part of the problem with the low status jobs that homeless people may be able to find. Those who are barely above the homeless are incentivized to keep the lowest-status jobs as low status as possible, to keep themselves marginally better in the status race than the working homeless.
Our country celebrates work, but only certain kinds of work. For the lowest status work, we sometimes accept disrespect and inconsiderate behavior. We certainly don’t do much to praise those who do the lowest status work. Lunch counter servers, lawn service personnel, and janitorial staff are crucial to the smooth functioning and high standards of our society, but people who do these jobs are not well respected. It is little wonder that many people who find themselves choosing between homelessness where they don’t have to be around disrespectful people while they complete menial tasks, chose unemployment over work. Dead end jobs with no prospect for life improvement are not inviting, yet they are often the only option for those who want to work. The increase in status over being unworking and homeless is marginal, and if we don’t make an effort to increase the status of those low-wage workers, we won’t be able to convince them that putting in the effort and actually working is in their best interest.
Many Homeless Want to Work

Many Homeless Want to Work

It is tempting to look at homeless people and people with signs on street corners and hold the opinion that the person simply needs to get a job and all their problems would be fixed. If they would get a job, even if it was physically demanding, low-wage, and/or a dirty job, they wouldn’t be begging for money or sleeping in shelters. We assume people don’t want to work and would rather beg and take a hand-out.
However, when Elliot Liebow spent time among homeless women in Washington DC and interviewed them to understand their lives, he discovered that many of them did want to work, but were prevented from finding and maintaining a job by a number of factors beyond their control. He writes, “At a very general level of unexamined beliefs, most women accepted the proposition that a job is the way out of homelessness. But when they confronted their own concrete situations, they knew this was not true for most of them.” Liebow examines many of the barriers that the women faced with working, and also highlighted how several of the women he met in shelters did have jobs, but still could not rent an apartment.
Some jobs are too far away for someone to commit to. Job security is a challenge for any homeless person, where one slip up or unfair customer could lead to the loss of their job. Additionally, night shifts are not possible for homeless people with no place to sleep during the day, and jobs that don’t have predictable schedules can be extra challenging for homeless or low-income individuals to maintain. If your work schedule is unknown in advance, it is hard to plan appropriately, and if you can lose shifts when things get slow, that means that your housing could be in jeopardy.
Liebow also stresses that it is not simply the money and the desire to no longer be homeless that motivated the women he spoke with to work. “For most people …” he wrote, [the] social value of work is experienced, at the individual level, as a principal source of independence and self-respect.” Work is something we take pride in. Few of us truly want a job where we get paid to sit on our rear ends without any expectations that we actually do anything. While we all work toward retirement, we also want to have meaningful and fulfilling work to do. Liebow continues, “it is through work that we engage the world and become a part of it, and through work that we lay claim to membership in the larger community and, in getting paid for our work, have that membership confirmed by others.” Many homeless individuals want to work, to get money and get off the streets, but also to be accepted members of their society. This is a reality we don’t all recognize or understand (even about ourselves) and we don’t always recognize the barriers that keep people from finding a job that will help bring them back into society in a meaningful and productive way.
Transportation & Jobs

Transportation & Jobs

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.

Keeping a Job

Keeping a Job

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women who make an effort to work and earn paychecks. Detailing the experience of a woman named Gwen, he writes,
“Keeping a job could be as difficult as finding one. Keeping a job might mean having to suppress an awareness of one’s real-life situation. Gwen struggled against that awareness. Once, when she had to go to her salesclerk job the next day, she was trying very hard not to be discouraged and not to worry about the fact that The Refuge [the homeless shelter where she was living] would close the next week. You’ve got to have a clear head on a job, she said if your mind is on your troubles, you can’t do your job. Customers want you to pay attention to them, and that’s what your boss wants you to do, too.”
When we think about homeless men and women our first thought is often that these people need to get a job and begin earning money so that they can afford a place to rent and get off the street. When we logically express what each person needs to do we recognize that there is a chain of events taking place. First is securing a job, second is keeping that job long enough to earn a paycheck, and third is being able to afford a place to live to escape homelessness. Somehow, when we casually make this suggestion, we fail to recognize the time that may be involved in each of these steps. We fail to realize that this simple, orderly process that we expect everyone to follow likely requires working a job while not having a place to live.
Liebow’s quote shows how absurd this idea can be. Homeless individuals can hardly be expected to first obtain a job when they live in a shelter and don’t have a stable living situation. Employers will not want to hire someone without reliable transportation to work, who might be coming to work hungry, and who is likely going to be distracted on the job and face numerous troubles outside of work that make it hard for them to perform well. If they do extend a job offer to someone who is homeless, then that individual is likely to have difficult times ahead of them as they try to get their life on track, and that means they may not have the mental toughness and on the job focus to grit through rude customers and challenging work tasks.
This reality is another argument in support of housing first programs. People need to have someplace secure, where they know they can go at the end of the day, in order to put their best selves forward in work. It is truly an argument for expanded social safety net programs in general. Those who contribute to such programs often complain about the costs they bear and the lack of benefits they receive (since they are not the homeless and needy ones) but fail to see how much they could benefit if more people were more productive on the job and were ultimately more productive in society. People are expected to work in the United States, but often they are under-supported and challenged outside of work to an extent that makes both finding and keeping a job nearly impossible. More support upfront may seem wasteful and may seem undeserved, but it may be better for the system in the long run.
Values, Contradictions, and Paradoxes Surrounding Jobs

Values, Contradictions, & Paradoxes Surrounding Jobs

In his book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “values and behavior around jobs and work are awash in ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox.” Liebow goes on to explain the complex relationships of homeless women and work. Many women, he writes, do work or do want to work. Some women hold more than one job, some only work intermittently, and some work random gigs for people they know. Some homeless women do avoid work, while others are afraid to try looking for work because they don’t have a fixed address or phone number to use when applying. Overall, there is a huge variation for homeless women when it comes to their experience with jobs and paid work.
The variation of work and jobs among homeless women shows us that working and homelessness is more challenging than the simple idea of homeless people needing to get a job to get off the streets. Some of the ambivalent or paradoxical ideas around work relate to the idea that one can be working, or want to be working, and still find themselves homeless. It is not hard to imagine why some people give up trying to work when they see others work hard but remain stuck on the streets or still others search for jobs and face constant let down with not being hired due to their appearance, their lack of recent work history, or because of their homelessness itself. It is also not hard to imagine that some women would like to work, possibly just to avoid boredom, but are afraid to try because they don’t want to be outcasts on the job or be looked down-upon by co-workers or customers for living in a shelter or in a car.
Ultimately, I don’t think the relationship that most homeless women have to work is all that different than the relationships most housed people have with work. We all strive toward retirement. We work hard, so that one day we won’t have to work any more. But when we meet someone new, pretty much the first thing we ask is what they do for work. And if they were a wealthy person who never had to work, we look down on them, even if we wish we were in their shoes and didn’t have to go to work every day. We too are living paradoxes when it comes to work and jobs. Some of us work simply to avoid the boredom, to escape our family lives, or to avoid disappointing other people. Some of us love our jobs and would do them even if we didn’t get paid. And some of us are frustrated by those old boomers who just won’t retire to let us take over the top spots that we have been striving so hard to reach – not because we necessarily need more money, but because we want the prestige and title to impress others.
In reading about homelessness, and in my personal interactions with homeless individuals, I am always surprised (which itself I find surprising) when I hear homeless people talking about work. I never expect us to share something in common around work, but the conversations I have heard fit with any conversation complaining about the tedious and unpleasant parts of a job. I’ve heard first-hand the ambivalent and often paradoxical thoughts toward work that Liebow wrote about. The easy way to think about homelessness and work is to assume the homeless don’t want to work. But the reality is much more complicated than the simple assumption. The reality is that all of us have more complicated views and feelings about work than we want to admit, and that include the homeless.
Mental Health and Homelessness

Mental Health & Homelessness

People are afraid of the homeless in part because they fear that homeless individuals suffer from mental health disorders. This means they cannot be trusted, their behaviors cannot be predicted, and they could lash out irrationally at people passing by. This perception of mental health disorders is fueled by real observations, such as depressed homeless individuals, homeless people talking to themselves, or homeless people acting and behaving in strange ways. It is also used as an excuse to explain why people are homeless, how useless it is to try to help them, and why we don’t really need to help them (because they have mental problems and we can’t help them even if we wanted).
However, Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I Am suggests that this perception is at least partially wrong. According to Liebow, some of the homeless women he met did have real mental health issues and concerns, but those concerns and problems did not necessarily cause their homelessness. For many of the women he met, the causal arrow flowed in the opposite direction. He writes, “some women explained that their mental health problems were caused (not merely aggravated) by homelessness and shelter living, and there was nothing to do about them so long as one remained homeless. For these women, the remedy lay in housing rather than treatment.”
Homelessness and the loss of autonomy that comes from living within shelters was the cause of mental health issues for many women. The stress of homelessness, the unpredictability of shelter living, and insufficient nutrition created mental health crises for some of the women. Social isolation and the feeling of failure and worthlessness further contributed to mental health problems. Mental health problems didn’t always drive women into homelessness and poverty, but often homelessness and poverty did drive women into mental health problems.
One solution would be to try to treat the homeless with medications or therapy to solve their mental health challenges and open a pathway to a job and stable housing. Liebow suggests that this would not work for many of the homeless. Their mental health challenges in part stem from being homeless (something Matthew Desmond wrote about in Evicted) and what they need more than treatment is a stable place to live. A stable place to live can open a pathway to improved mental health, reintegration with society, and ultimately a job and all the things we want for homeless men and women. For mental health concerns, Liebow argues, housing must come first, not as a reward for getting things back on track.