Housing First Solutions

Housing First Solutions

“Regardless of why people are on the streets, giving them a place to live that offers a modicum of privacy and stability is usually the most important thing we can do to improve their lives. Without stable housing, nothing else is likely to work. If people have housing, the rest of their life may improve. Even if it does not, at least they have a home,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless.
Housing first solutions are inconvenient truths and feel like repugnant conclusions. Giving people housing without requiring that they earn it through work, through sobriety, or through any other qualification that would make them deserving seems to go completely against what it means to be American. It feels like it excuses poor decisions, ignores people’s criminality or drug use, and tacitly approves of laziness. If we want people to be a productive member of society, then we should incentivize them for good behavior and punish them for bad behavior. Giving people housing before we ensure they are living up to our expectations violates the basic ideas we have for incentivizing people to make the tough decisions that are necessary to function in society. However, as the quote from Jencks suggests, it is often necessary.
Withholding housing doesn’t seem to be a solution to our current homelessness crisis in the United States. It seems instead to push people onto the streets, into charity shelters, and into tents alongside our roadways and greenspaces. We complain about the homeless, try to push them out of our cities, and wish we had solutions. But we don’t think to provide more services, more supports, and real forms of housing to the homeless as a solution.
The argument that Jencks and others make is that we need to give people housing, some space of their own, and some stability before we can expect them to get their lives back on track. Our society operates with the assumption that people have a home. Without a house you sometimes can’t receive services and supports the government makes an effort to provide. You can’t get a job. You can’t make plans because you don’t know where you will be sleeping tomorrow and you can’t store any food or grooming products. Without a stable home, you can’t do the things society is telling you to do in order to receive help and get your life moving in the right direction. Housing first may not align with American values on its face, but it is necessary for living up to the values we espouse.
Working Versus Dependent

Working Versus Dependent

One of my favorite ideas from the world of political science is the Social Construction Framework. In the framework, social constructions, that is ideas and concepts that people hold about groups of people, end up determining what types of policies can be adopted. The ways we think about people shapes the ways we treat people. We think of veterans as having made a great sacrifice for the nation, and as a result, we adopt policies that benefit veterans. We see people who commit crimes as having wronged society and consequently we develop policies that punish criminals.
Elliot Liebow reflected ideas from Social Construction Framework in his book Tell Them Who I Am when writing about the ways that homeless women saw and understood themselves. He wrote, “the women recognized only two classes: a working class and a dependent class, with each group claiming to be the deserving poor.” In this example there are two groups that share commonalities, but are differentiated by their work status. The social constructions around each group, the ways we (and they) think about the groups, was in flux, with each group trying to adopt a more favorable view than the other group. Adopting a more favorable construction would hopefully lead to more favorable policies in the long run.
First, the working poor wanted to be seen as the deserving poor because they were making an effort to participate in society, to contribute to the system, and to show that they were hard working and not lazy. They deserved aid because they recognized an unspoken expectation in the United States, we won’t help you unless you make an effort to work. Deservingness, according to this group, was determined based on how hard someone tried to make it on their own.
The second group was those who were not working, but still saw themselves as deserving. The group which was not working included women who had disabilities and could not work, women who faced discrimination and couldn’t work even if they wanted to, and women who had fallen on hard times and didn’t know where to go to get back on track. They were truly deserving because they had no other alternatives, no resources beyond what welfare and shelters could provide, and no hope of getting out of their current situation. They saw themselves as more deserving because they had no way to make money. Those who were working, on the other hand, should be able to get by without continuing to take handouts. In the view of the second group they were truly destitute and in need of aid whereas those who were working didn’t need the aid and assistance as much.
What Liebow’s quote demonstrates is the constantly changing nature of social constructions within the Social Construction Framework. How a group is seen, the framing used to describe the group, and the outcomes of those perceptions and perspectives is always in flux. Groups compete for favorable positions, all in an attempt to improve political and social outcomes. Subjective opinions and feelings often matter more than cold hard facts within a world dominated by the Social Construction Framework. The distinctions can be razor thin between one deserving group and another deviant group, meaning that even slight shifts in perspective can be the difference between how someone from one group is treated.
Paternalism, Deservingness, and Dependency

Paternalism, Deservingness, and Dependency

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.
Denied Housing Assistance

Denied Housing Assistance

In the United States it is hard to build political consensus for any measure. Measures aiding the poor are especially difficult to build a strong coalition behind. As a result, many of the measures that our nation adopts in an attempt to help the poor or address issues for those in need have compromises that make them less effective. This means that sometimes our policies don’t actually end up helping the people who most need assistance.
Matthew Desmond writes about this in his book Evicted. Regarding housing assistance, Desmond writes, “often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance – the rent-burdened and evicted – are systematically denied it.”
It is hard to find political support to provide assistance to people we don’t find deserving of assistance. The things that make people deserving of assistance are things like personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, a good sense of moral and social expectations, and self discipline to bring all these qualities together. Unfortunately, for many people living in poverty, especially those who have suffered trauma, some or all of these characteristics may be missing. We judge these characteristics by people’s level of debt and missed payments, by their history of eviction, and whether or not they have been able to maintain a stable job. These proxies help us determine if someone has the characteristics that would make them deserving of aid, but they also completely miss the point.
People who are deserving of aid usually are not the ones in the most dire need of aid. Quite often people who possess all the qualities to be seen as deserving hit hard stretches and need aid, but quite often people fail, they lose support and struggle to maintain the characteristics that would make them deserving, and are left without aid, making it impossible for them to actually improve their lives and become deserving of aid.
Desmond’s book, and the work of others on housing issues, advocates for a housing first policy. We cannot make housing assistance an incentive, it must be the primary foundation. We cannot expect someone to get a job if they don’t have housing. We cannot expect someone to stay off drugs if they don’t have a safe place to live. We cannot expect someone to catch up on debt payments if they don’t have a house and can’t get a foothold in the labor market. Housing, and housing assistance, has to be a priority, not an incentive or reward that is only provided to those seen as the most deserving.
Social Construction Framework and the Working Poor

Social Construction Framework & The Working Poor

A framework for understanding public policy that I learned about during my graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno is the Social Construction Framework (SCF). The SCF argues that we project social constructions onto groups and that the targets of a policy and the social constructions attached to the targets greatly influence the form of the policy. Some groups, like military veterans, are advantaged in this system while others are seen as deviants, like drug addicts. Policy directed toward an advantaged group tends to be more generous while policy directed toward a deviant group tends to be more punitive in nature.
In exploring the history of welfare in the United States, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day share several quotes from Bill Clinton, whose presidential administration reshaped the welfare system of the 1990s. What the authors present is an administration that is designing policy to aid the poor as we would expect based on the SCF. The category of poor people was split into two distinct sub-categories, the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor were those who worked hard, didn’t take advantage of the system, but had some bad luck and needed help getting by. The underserving poor did not have jobs and didn’t seek out jobs. They may have been drug addicts and may have had other problems that were attributable to poor decision-making or poor character.
In the book they write, “as Clinton was announcing plans to bolster the efforts of the working poor – whom many saw as deserving, but for whom there was little to no aid – he once again borrowed from [Harvard professor David] Ellwood, making the case that the working poor play by the rules but get the shaft. It was time to make work pay.”
Clinton’s policy was designed to help those who were seen as the deserving poor, who would fit a category in the SCF usually named dependents. The working poor are economically and politically weak, and policy which targets them usually provides more positive rhetoric than substantive aid. The underserving poor, the deviants in the SCF, were targeted with policies which took away benefits. Failing to work, testing positive for drug use, or being unable to submit a form, would result in the underserving poor losing their benefits. When we think about social assistance programs we see a lot of policies that can be understood through this SCF lens. We craft policies and narratives based on the social constructions of our target populations, bringing real world outcomes from the fictional narratives and social constructions of our collective minds.
Seneca on the Deserving Poor

Seneca on the Deserving Poor

I really enjoyed studying public policy at the University of Nevada, especially when I had a chance to dive into Social Construction Framework as a way to understand the legislative process. Social Construction Framework (SCF) posits that the way we think about the targets of a policy, that is the characteristics and traits that we ascribe to the population who will be rewarded or punished by a policy, determines how we structure the policy and how likely the policy is to be passed by a legislature. The world is too complex for us to have nuanced, detailed, and accurate understandings of everyone and everything, and so we make shortcuts. These heuristics help us understand the decisions we have to make, and we bring them into the political arena with stereotypes and simplifications of people and social processes. The final policy that we enact is not an objective and scientific product of rational thought about the complex nature of humanity and the universe, but is instead based on these heuristics and social constructions.

 

It is in this framework that I have recently been thinking more about the deserving poor. I have recently done a bit of reading into homelessness, and there is a tension in America in terms of the social constructions attached to homelessness. The homeless can be seen as deserving of aid because (now two) economic downturns have wrecked their financial opportunities or because they faced parental abandonment or abuse growing up, and never got off to a good start. Alternatively, we can see the poor as undeserving, because we think they may be lazy, may be drug users, and might just make poor decisions and they need to pay the consequences. These two ways of conceptualizing the homeless play into the SCF and determine whether we pass policies that help them or punish them.

 

SCF is relatively new and isn’t something that is discussed by the broad public very often. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t think in ways that are described by SCF, and it doesn’t mean that these ways of thinking are new to Americans in the 21st century. Seneca, in his book Letters From a Stoic wrote, “My situation … is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.”

 

What Seneca describes is the way that we see poor people who face economic hardship through unlucky situations as being deserving of aid. As opposed to those who lose a fortune gambling, making bad investments with grifters, or appear to be poor due to personal flaws like laziness, those who lose their fortune due to an unpredictable cancer diagnosis, the tragic loss of a loved one, or a sudden natural disaster are viewed as less blameworthy. They are somehow deserving of sympathy and aid, but often times, these individuals are politically weak. Children don’t have much ability to shape public policy because they can’t vote, but they are a sympathetic constituency. The same may go for the elderly poor, widowed wives of military veterans, or people with disabilities. They are socially praised, or at least not blamed for their dire situations as Seneca noted, but that doesn’t mean they are likely to get a lot of help.

 

Because these groups are well liked, we don’t actively make things more difficult for them, the way we would for people convicted of violent crime or for drug users. But because they don’t contribute a lot to society (in the views of most people) and because they don’t have a lot of political power, they often receive positive rhetoric from elected officials and members of the public in general, but they don’t often receive much aid. This was true when Seneca was writing his letters which became a book, and it is still true today. Viewing people as deserving or undeserving goes back a long way, and we should work to be consciously aware of how we think about groups, and what policy we put forward based on how we understand a group’s level of deservingness.

A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.