Fueled by Indifference

Fueled by Indifference

In December of 2021 I was in Las Vegas and on my way back to the airport the GPS took me through a tough part of town. There were numerous homeless people along one stretch and tons of trash strewn across the streets.
Today I retweeted a picture from Los Angeles with a caption, “Not a third world country, your country.” The picture featured a train pulling shipping containers along a stretch of track completely littered with garbage, boxes, and junk.
The stretch of Las Vegas I drove through and the picture from LA reflect the indifference in the United States that fuels really awful realities for so many places and lives. Our country is so focused on the individuals that we fail to see our collective responsibilities. We are so prone to thinking about improving the world through our own hard work and efforts to be a good person that we see larger problems that demand collective action and feel helpless. I couldn’t help every homeless person I drove past in Las Vegas, and I can’t clean up the train tracks in LA by myself. The problem is beyond what I could do, so why should I even think about it. It is easier to just blame others for their laziness, lack of morals, or to simply be indifferent.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference.” Harari is writing about human animal consumption, and about the way industrial agriculture operates. He is also critiquing the idea of using animals as a technology for food sources and human nutrition in general. Animals by all means appear to be conscious and have experiences, but we don’t think about it. We are indifferent to their suffering, we ignore the issue, and we go about our lives fueling great harm to animal lives that we consider lesser than human lives.
Harari’s thoughts on indifference are reflected in the two recent experiences that I shared. In LA, shipping containers on trains are being raided for the goods they contain. Amazon boxes, goods shipped from oversees, and whatever else happens to be in shipping containers are being stolen and the packaging is being tossed about. Our focus on ourselves, our own goods and experiences, and on what we have has put us in a position where we are indifferent to the damage that our personal desires have on the rest of the world. In Las Vegas we enjoy the nightlife of the strip, the shopping and entertainment of the hotels and casinos, and the renowned restaurants. We don’t think about the people who have had tough luck, made bad decisions, or just not been given extra help when they are down. Unless our GPS takes us an unconventional route, we ignore the problems of poverty around such a glitzy city. I am certainly no better than anyone else in these regards.
Somehow we have to find a way to be less indifferent. Somehow we have to find a way to value collective organizations and efforts. Somehow we have to empower institutions that will help us care more about other lives (human and animal) and other places. As I note, it is too hard for any one of us to help the homeless or clean the environment on our own. It is easy to be indifferent, and there are too many bad things and important causes for us to focus on anything in particular. We need to have institutions that further collective action and overcome our individual indifferences. 
Belief in Efficiency & Competitiveness

Belief in Efficiency & Competitiveness

In the United States we celebrate private enterprise. At the same time, we often downplay public institutions and ignore their contributions to the world we inhabit. We focus almost exclusively on the developments of private corporations and the developments and innovations of businesses. We are critical and wary of anything that can be presented as inefficient or likely to make private companies less competitive. However, this mindset sometimes means that we become too focused on short-term performance and fail to see larger systems and structures that unite private enterprise with the rest of society.
In his book The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes, “almost everyone … believes that efficiency (often called “competitiveness”) must come first, and that social stability will somehow follow.” The general mindset in the United States is that we need to have a fast paced, innovative, and efficient private sector for our country to flourish. Without first ensuring that the state is set for businesses and private enterprises to operate at maximal efficiency, our democracy and our country cannot successfully exist. America, this argument holds, is entirely dependent on business profits, and anything that gets in the way of competitive and efficient business is a threat to the country.
I am not an economist, and I don’t understand labor markets very well. However, I think that Jencks is correct when he states that we accept a level of sacrifice of the lowest socioeconomic status individuals in the United States in exchange for a meritocracy that generally works pretty well for most of us. I generally think we are hyper-focused on ideas of deservingness and on our own self-interest. We conflate our own self-interest with the self-interest of society at large, arguing that our economic purchases and chasing our own individual materialistic goals is what is going to keep our economy running, innovating, and leading the world.
The argument that Jencks is making in the quote above is that pure business efficiency and competitiveness is not enough for a stable society. Sacrificing those who don’t have the skills to make it in an efficient business world creates instability and fractures within our society – instabilities and fractures that an efficient business mindset cannot address. For Jencks, and for me, human connections and social cohesion are at least as important as efficiency and competition in business. The focus on short-term returns, a frequent critique of American corporations today, certainly cannot help social cohesion or improved long-term human connections and senses of community.
I think that writers like Tyler Cowen are correct in arguing that economic growth (which delivers improved quality of life) are important, but I’m not sure businesses are always focused on improving life satisfaction. Businesses are often focused on short term rent capture, which harms society. I think there are ways to drive innovations without creating an underclass that is crushed along the way and we need to find those ways. I think we need to remember how important the role of government can be in developing technologies and encouraging innovation. The development of the internet is a great example of the important, but easily overlooked role that the government can play in technological development, and Katz and Nowak show in The New Localism, how local governments and quasi-public/private institutions and partnerships can be a new model for driving economic growth and development. The key is recognizing that pursuing business efficiency at the cost of the lives of those on the lowest rung of society is not supportable and won’t lead to good social outcomes in the long run.
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.
Voting, Homelessness, and Gentrification

Voting, Homelessness, and Gentrification

I live in Reno, Nevada, a city that was hit very hard by the Great Recession and has turned around over the last few years with an explosion of gentrification. The city is in a valley between the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and more smaller ranges to the East. The city is at a point where the valley has been mostly filled in, meaning that any additional urban sprawl will have to take place in valleys outside the main Reno/Sparks area. Consequently, prices have risen in the valley, driven by a limited supply, limited ability to spread, and an influx of new residents from California and neighboring states. At the same time that the city is gentrifying, new developments and new economic programs built on tech and outdoor tourism are changing the local landscapes. New trendy hotels are being built and large hotel casinos are being turned into condominiums and apartments.
Caught-up in the city’s transformation are the homeless shelters. The main area where homeless shelters have been concentrated downtown is transforming into a trendy place with local breweries and new restaurants. It is close to the still somewhat new baseball stadium and is close to an area where the University of Nevada, Reno is currently expanding student housing. This has put pressure on city leaders to clean-up the area, which means pushing out the homeless who have come to know the area as a place where they can find shelter and a meal.
“The very poor are a tiny minority,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, “and they hardly ever vote. Citizens who want the poor to live as far away as possible are a large majority, and they vote regularly. That leaves the poorest of the poor with nowhere to go.”
This quote from Jencks accurately sums up the current situation regarding the homeless in my home town. Rumos I have heard are that the Gospel Mission my wife and I volunteer at to serve the homeless will have to move and the building it occupies will likely be demolished for new hotels in the near future. I think this is a good economic move for the city, our ballpark, and the area around the stadium. Reno is a town that has always been in the shadow of Las Vegas as a less glitzy, downscale version of sin city. Many people want to reimagine Reno as something better, cleaner, and more attractive to the outside world than a sad version of Vegas. However, our homeless who rely on the shelter and know they can depend on the area for a place to eat and sleep are going to be pushed further away. A new, much larger, homeless shelter was recently built, but it is several miles down the road in a somewhat hard to access part of town next to the busiest freeway interchange. It was people with resources who vote that decided the homeless needed to go and that they would be pushed to one of the least attractive parts of town. The homeless, without any power themselves, certainly didn’t chose to be even further marginalized and outcast from a city that wants to ignore their existence.
Bad Luck, Homelessness, and My Writing

Bad Luck, Homelessness, and My Writing

In The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes:
“When we try to understand this issue, it helps to remember that if bad luck were the main cause of homelessness, good luck would suffice to end it. Luck is by definition always changing. Thus if bad luck were the main cause of homelessness, most people would be homeless occasionally, but few would be homeless for long. In reality, most people are never homeless, a sizable number are homeless briefly, and a few are homeless for long periods. The long-term homeless are mostly people for whom almost everything imaginable has gone wrong for many years. Many are heavy drug or alcohol users. Many have severe mental disabilities. Even those who do not have such easily labeled problems have the kind of bad luck that recurs over and over, causing them to lose one job after another and one friend after another. …
Sympathetic writers and advocates often dwell on bad luck because they want to convince the public that the homeless are victims of circumstances beyond their control and deserve our help. This strikes me as a myopic strategy. It inspires incredulity among the worldly, and it leads the credulous to underestimate how much help the long-term homeless really need.”
These two paragraphs are a great summation of a lot of my thinking and also serve as a metacommentary on my recent writing about the homeless. When I imagine a homeless person, I generally do believe that numerous factors beyond their control had to exist for them to end up homeless. Even if it can be shown that they made poor choices, have generally been lazy their whole life, and have a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, I don’t think it is entirely fair to place all the blame for homelessness on the individual. I think bad luck, potentially starting by being born to unsupportive parents or being born with genes that make one less likely to succeed (genes contributing to ADHD or increased chances of addiction), can contribute to homelessness far more than good luck can contribute to getting out of homelessness. Still, I think Jencks’ point that those who advocate for better ways of thinking about the homeless can overplay the bad luck argument.
Homelessness is a serious problem that would be incredibly expensive to eliminate across the country. We currently don’t have the manpower to give adequate mental healthcare to everyone who needs it along with subsequent counseling and simple life skills training. We would have to pay all the people who help the homeless adapt to living in their own space. We would likely have to establish some sort of method to provide currently illegal drugs in a safe manner, another costly and complicated set of policies and institutions. It is not just a matter of giving the homeless a handout, it is  a matter of reshaping society and reorganizing our resources – a difficult, time intensive, and resource intensive process that couldn’t be done overnight, or even in a decade.
Some people are homeless for a short stretch due to bad luck, and their experience in homelessness, in terms of support they are or are not offered should not be determined by how we think and feel about the chronically homeless. Some individuals chose homelessness and some simply have no way to escape it at this point, and our policies generally stem from how we think about them. This is a mistake, especially if we want to help those who may fall into homelessness, but could escape it with early interventions. In the effort to bolster support and show that not all homelessness is chronic homelessness, we may overplay the bad luck argument, leading to disappointment when we don’t see changes in the visibly and chronically homeless. The problem is complex, includes different populations with different needs, and is easy to oversimplify arguments surrounding homelessness. Nevertheless, I think the impulse and general feeling of most people is that the homeless are lazy derelicts. I think we overplay the role of personal responsibility in society, and we fail to recognize how much our social responsibilities (or lack thereof) contribute to the problems we see around us. I think we should be honest about the costs, timelines, and effort involved with addressing homelessness, but I still feel that we need to make the argument that homelessness doesn’t happen in individual vacuums and that we shouldn’t simply blame the homeless for being homeless. We can discuss the bad luck that many people face on a path toward homelessness, and we can also address the social responsibility we all have in helping people avoid such deep failures.
The Last Hired, The First Fired

The Last Hired, The First Fired

In the United States our economic system is more or less a meritocratic system. It is not a perfect meritocracy (we all know someone who got a job because of a parent or well connected uncle rather than their skills), but for the most part, hard working people are able to get promoted based on their effort, talent, and skills. If you deserve an opportunity to advance you can normally find an avenue forward, even if it is winding and has some setbacks along the way. For most of us this works to our advantage and helps keep our economy, universities, and public institutions moving forward. But for the homeless people in our society, this turns into a crushing system that doesn’t provide second chances.
“The homeless are clearly the last hired and the first fired,” writes Christopher Jencks in his book The Homeless. Our system of meritocracy awards the hard working and those who are willing to show up early, stay late, and put on a smile in the face of upset customers. Homeless people often have trouble on all of these fronts, partly due to the very nature of their homelessness. They may not have good transportation to a job, making it hard to be early. If they have to be in a shelter by a certain time or risk losing their spot, then they cannot stay late on a job. The stress, anxiety, and disrespect of homelessness often makes it hard for the homeless to have good people skills, meaning they have trouble with performance on the low-wage jobs available to them.
On top of this, being homeless itself is a ding against someone in our meritocratic system. The homeless are seen as defective, so even if someone sets out to be hard working and courteous on a job where they have the right skill set for success, they start further behind everyone else. They are only offered a job when no other employees could be found. Starting behind everyone else means they have more ground to cover to catch up and be seen on par with everyone else. They are constantly under more scrutiny. This makes them vulnerable to being fired even if they are trying hard and doing well. When work is slow and layoffs happen, the homeless are often easily justified as the first fired in our meritocracy.
Any system is going to have shortcomings and the systems of meritocracy in our workplace are no exception. Most of us can do well in meritocratic institutions, but outliers on the extreme ends, the hyper-wealthy and the homeless, don’t have the same experiences in a meritocracy as the majority of us. The homeless can’t get a good start in a meritocratic system, and are penalized before they even try to begin.  I would argue that we need a universal jobs guarantee to ensure that the homeless can find some type of work to do, even if it is ultimately menial and meaningless, to help them get a foothold and avoid being the last hired and first fired from any job they try to maintain. Guaranteeing we can get everyone some type of paid work will enable the poor to find a benefit in participating in our meritocracy rather than being a left-out extremity.
55% of Chicago Homeless Looked Neat and Clean

55% of Chicago Homeless Looked Neat & Clean

If I pictured a homeless person in my mind I would imagine someone who was dirty, who may not have a shirt, and who had a mess of overgrown and ungroomed hair. Whether male or female, ragged clothes, unkempt hair, and bags full of stuff seems to be the typical image of a homeless person. However, there are many homeless people, perhaps even a majority in some cities at some times, who do not fit the stereotypical image of a homeless person.
In The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes about our expectations of what homelessness looks like, and what the reality of homeless often is for those experiencing homelessness. Regarding our expectations, he writes, “but appearances can mislead us … When [Peter] Rossi surveyed the Chicago homeless, his interviewers classified 55 percent of the people they interviewed as neat and clean rather than dirty, unkempt, or shabbily dressed.”
We don’t expect people who wear normal and clean clothes to be homeless. We don’t expect people who are generally well groomed and don’t smell bad to be homeless. But when Peter Rossi was writing his book Down and Out in America, a slight majority of people interviewed were dressed more or less normally and appeared to be typical people. These individuals are part of the group generally referred to as the invisible homeless. Rather than the visible people sleeping in tents who can’t shave, can’t shower, and have a few dirty possessions, these people appeared normal, but still didn’t have a home. They were missed and misunderstood in the debates and discussions of homeless people. They often hid their homelessness from the people they interacted with, creating space for the misperceptions about homelessness.
I think it is important to compare our stereotypical view of homelessness to the reality of homelessness for many people. When we see the visibly homeless we often have strong reactions, and those strong reactions generally dictate how we think the homeless should be handled. But those strong reactions and opinions fail to account for the kind of homelessness that perhaps a majority experience. This means that policies and programs to help the homeless (or more nefariously “address” the homeless) may fail to actually benefit the majority of homeless or to even focus on the leading drivers of homelessness. If someone who is neat and clean is in line at a soup kitchen, or asking for aid, they may not seem like they need it because they don’t look like the typical homeless person. Or, if we deny assistance to the homeless because we think they are all dirty, lazy, and possibly on drugs, then we fail to help those homeless who are trying to look and appear normal, who are tying to keep a job while homeless, and who are trying not to fall into the ungroomed stereotype of the homeless. It is important that we are aware of our expectations, biases, and prejudices around the homeless so that we can develop an accurate understanding of homelessness in our nation to actually address the problem.
Personally and Politically Disturbed by the Homeless

Personally and Politically Disturbed by the Homeless

On the first page of the preface of The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes about the responses that many Americans had to the rise of homelessness in American cities in the 1970s. He writes, “The spread of homelessness disturbed affluent Americans for both personal and political reasons. At a personal level, the faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. … At a political level, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic or social institutions.”
I think the two books which most accurately describe the way that I understand our political and social worlds are Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Kahneman suggests that our brains are far more susceptible to cognitive errors than we would like to believe. Much of our decision-making isn’t really so much decision-making as it is excuse making, finding ways to give us agency over decisions that were more or less automatic. Additionally, Kahneman shows that we very frequently, and very predictably, make certain cognitive errors that lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the world. Simler and Hansen show that we often deliberately mislead ourselves, choosing to intentionally buy into our minds’ cognitive errors. By deliberately lying to ourselves and choosing to view ourselves and our beliefs through a false objectivity, we can better lie to others, enhancing the way we signal to the world and making ourselves appear more authentic. [Note: some recent evidence has put some findings from Kahneman in doubt, but I think his general argument around cognitive errors still holds.]
Jencks published his book long before Thinking Fast and Slow and The Elephant in the Brain were published, but I think his observation hints at the findings that Kahneman, Simler, and Hanson would all write about in the coming decades. People wanted to hold onto beliefs they possibly knew or suspected to be false. They were disturbed by a reality that did not match the imagined reality in which they wanted to believe. They embraced cognitive errors and adopted beliefs and conclusions based on those cognitive errors. They deceived themselves about reality to better appear to believe the myths they embraced, and in the end they developed a political system where they could signal their virtue by strongly adhering to the initial cognitive errors that sparked the whole process.
Jencks’ quote shows why homelessness is such a tough issue for many of us to face. When we see large number of people failing and ending up homeless it suggests that there is something more than individual shortcomings at work. It suggests that somewhere within society and our social structures are points of failure. It suggests that our institutions, from which we may benefit as individuals, are not serving everyone. This goes against our beliefs which reinforce our self-interest, and is hard to accept. It is much easier to simply fall back on cognitive illusions and errors and to blame those who have failed. We truly believe that homelessness is the problem of individuals because we are deceiving ourselves, and because it serves our self-interest to do so. When we see homeless, we see a reality we want to ignore and pretend does not exist because we fear it and we fear that we may be responsible for it in some way. We fear that homelessness will necessitate a change in the social structures and institutions that have helped us get to where we are and that changes may make things harder for us or somehow diminishing our social status. This is why we are so disturbed by homeless, why we prefer not to think about it, and why we develop policies based on the assumption that people who end up homeless are deeply flawed individuals and are responsible for their own situation. It is also likely why we have not done enough to help the homeless, why it is becoming a bigger issue in American cities, and why we have been so bad at addressing the real causes of homelessness in America. There is definitely some truth to the argument that homelessness is the result of flawed individuals, which is why it is such a strong argument, but we should accept that there are some flawed causal thoughts at play and that it is often in our self-interest to dismiss the homeless as individual failures.
Can Markets Work Without Human Sacrifices?

Can Markets Work Without Human Sacrifices?

In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “Unemployment, underemployment, and substandard wages are system failures only when viewed from the bottom. Looking from the top down, they are seen as natural processes essential to the healthy functioning of a self-correcting market system. From that perspective, it is as if the market system requires human sacrifice for its good health.” Liebow argues that markets can and should function without such failures. He argues that we have deliberately crafted a system that allows and accepts these market failures at the expense of greater marginal profits and returns on investments. The costs of the failures become spread over society, while the marginal gains are concentrated in the few market leaders.
Liebow encourages us to see homelessness as a system failure. He encourages us to see the support of the homeless as a responsibility of everyone within society and as a responsibility of the system as a whole. His book argues that we cannot rely on the few shelters, the minimal government assistance, and family members of those in need if we want to reduce homelessness. We all have to recognize the costs of homelessness, the way that social and market forces can drive people to homelessness, and the actors who are not helping to solve the problem. In particular, Liebow argues that businesses are not doing enough to solve homelessness:
“As if by magic, the onus of welfare and dependency is lifted from the system of work and the employers and placed on the workers and the unemployed right in front of our very eyes, and no one is any the wiser.”
I don’t think markets need to operate in a way that sacrifices the poorest people. There are statistics about the numbers of employees at companies like Walmart who receive food stamps or Medicaid benefits. Companies are able to pay minimum wage to their employees, and Liebow argues the companies themselves are subsidized for their low wages by our system that provides free healthcare and food to those individuals who cannot earn enough through their job. This shifts the burden of supporting the workforce from the companies that require the workforce in order to be profitable to the workers themselves. This accepts that we will have human sacrifices in order for profits to stay high and for the price of cheap goods to remain low. Liebow thought this was a problem and believed that it was possible for effective markets to exist without such human sacrifices.
I would also argue that there are many jobs that are not being done because we focus so highly on private markets. Companies want to be as efficient as possible, meaning they focus on where they can generate the highest profit. As a result, we don’t build enough affordable housing, our parks and greenspaces are littered with trash that no one is incentivized to clean, and lots of recycling goes to landfills instead of being sorted and reused. These are not all wonderful jobs and it would be hard to get homeless people to do these types of jobs, but the point is that our system which sacrifices the poor also sacrifices those jobs that don’t make the marginal cost benefit analysis worthwhile for corporations. There is work that can be done if we can find a way to allow public institutions to do it. Shifting from a sense of sacrificing the poor may encourage them to actually participate in society by doing these jobs, especially if we can make them suck a little less. Such a system would be a big departure from our current approach to markets, but it is probably necessary if we want greater social cohesion and less poverty and homelessness.
Is Homelessness an Individual Phenomenon?

Is Homelessness an Individual Phenomenon?

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.