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.
Housing or Dignity

Housing or Dignity

For most Americans who rent a home or apartment, if something important breaks, like a pipe or part of the HVAC system, they can expect the landlord to respond and fix the problem in a reasonable time. However, our nation’s poorest individuals cannot always expect to have repairs to the housing they rent made in a reasonable and timely manner. Rents are expensive, and for many Americans work is hard to find and payments for housing falls behind. When this happens, exploitation is possible and many low-income renters end up trading their dignity for their housing.
In Evicted Matthew Desmond follows a landlord named Sherrena through the general course of her day managing several rental units for low-income individuals. In the book, several of Sherrena’s tenants fall behind on their rent and need help getting by. This creates a situation where Sherrena is able to skirt the rules on maintenance and upkeep for her rental properties. Desmond writes, “as Sherrena put it to tenants: if I give you a break, you give me a break.” The implication is clear, if you are a difficult tenant due to noise complaints, damage to the property, or late rent, don’t expect the landlord to stick to the letter of the law in terms of fixing and repairing the rental property. Its not so much giving Sherrena a break in terms of being slow to address concerns but rather an acknowledgement that Sherrena giving a tenant a break is an exercise of power which allows her to then avoid legal requirements related to general property upkeep.
There is a transactional sense where this seems logical. If a tenant is going to be late on payments or difficult in one way or another, then they should expect that the landlord is going to be less cooperative in return. This is a classic tit for tat type of transactional relationship where one person responds in kind to the provocations of the other. But as Desmond describes, and Sherrena’s quote demonstrates, this creates exploitative relationships between landlords and poor renters.
“Tenants could trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.” Housing prices across the nation have increased at a time when wages have stagnated for many people. Prior to 2020, unemployment reached record lows, but still, many people had left the job market and couldn’t find adequate work to support them with a living wage. For these individuals, being able to afford rent month after month is a major challenge.
Falling behind on rent may mean that a landlord will ignore problems with the rental property. This could mean they don’t call an exterminator if bugs are found in the building, that they don’t fix a broken window, or that they don’t hire a plumber to repair a clogged toilet. Renters who are behind on rent or have rocky relationships with the landlord have to put up with unsanitary or dangerous living conditions until they can get current on rent or catch up on any back payments. Being poor means they trade in their dignity and health in order to not get kicked out of their rental. We can argue that this is simply market dynamics and rational behavior on the part of landlords, but we should acknowledge that there is a dignity trade off taking place and that low-income renters can be exploited by more powerful landlords. This is a real issue that we should care about, no matter how lazy, how undeserving, or how bad we find the choices an individual has made to end up in their current situation. Trading dignity for housing should simply be untenable.
The Importance of Respect

The Importance of Respect

In my life, many family members, friends, and elders have warned me against drug use by belittling those who are addicted to drugs. Words like junkie, derelict, waste, and zombie are commonly accepted words that are used to denigrate drug addicts (and that’s the tame end of drug user insults). The common stance, from what I always saw growing up, was disrespect and disgust toward people addicted to drugs. The importance of respect for these individuals, always seemed to be lost.


I studied public policy at the University of Nevada, and one of my favorite frameworks for understanding the legislative process is Ingram and Schneider’s Social Construction Framework. By looking at the social constructions, that is the framings and structures through which we understand target populations, of those who will receive the cost or benefit of a policy, we can understand how society thinks about who is deserving and who is undeserving of aid. The framework helps us think about power in politics, and whether we like or dislike specific people or characteristics of people.


Drug addicts, in almost all examples of the Social Construction Framework, are viewed as deviants. They have no political power, and are not seen as deserving. Consequently, it is politically popular to put more punishments on drug addicts. Policies which aid drug addicts and provide some type of benefit to them are politically costly.


Unfortunately, as Johan Hari explains in Chasing the Scream, this framing can lead to isolation among drug addicts, making it harder for them to ever recover. Hari quotes Ruth Dreifuss as saying, “Prevention begins with respect.”


To help people recover from drug addiction, and indeed to stop people who use drugs from developing addictions, we have to show them respect. We have to acknowledge their humanity, and we have to be willing to work with them, rather than to only punish them further. When describing Dreifuss’s views, Hari writes, “She had always believed that everyone – no matter how seemingly lost – can be empowered if you do it right.”


We may never be able to help everyone completely overcome addiction. We may never be able to stomp out addiction and drug abuse entirely, but we can work with people and show them respect, even if they have made mistakes and even if they do something we don’t want to see, such as abuse drugs and develop drug addictions. We can work with everyone to help them become better and more well adjusted versions of themselves, but it requires respect and a recognition of their humanity. We can’t just see people as deviants and heap piles of punishment on them, and then wonder why they never rise up. Not everyone is going to be a perfect success and some will still fail, but they will always deserve respect and to be treated as fully human. If we can’t provide those two pieces, then we will certainly fail to reduce drug use and addiction, and we will continue living with people we classify as outcasts and deviants.

The Scope of Human Rights

Frank Hutchins, a housing and tenant leader in New Jersey, greatly shaped Cory Booker as he entered politics. Booker recalls several stories of Mr. Hutchins in his book United and offers several quotes from Frank that shaped the way that Booker’s came to understand and approach the world. Regarding human rights, Booker shares the following thoughts, shaped by Hutchins, in United,


“Frank asserted that civil rights — indeed, human rights— were not just about equal access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunity. Human dignity, security, freedom from fear, environmental toxins, and physical deprivation were also rights that should be defended and fought for. It was then that he said to me, looking at me with his kind eyes, ‘Cory, housing is a human right.'”


We often think of civil rights in the context of the Civil Rights Movement which frames our thoughts through black and white television footage of marches to end segregation. The black and white tv and fuzzy audio recordings make the Civil Rights movement seem so far behind us, but the reality that Frank expressed to Booker is that civil rights issues continue to this day and continue beyond racial categories. Civil rights was never just about segregation as we mistakenly think about it today, but rather it was about everything Frank expressed to Booker, about sharing with everyone on the planet a life that we would find acceptable.


When we think about human dignity, security, freedom from fear, toxins, and physical deprivation we are thinking about the things that make us human. We have our differences and we are not born equal in terms of our biological abilities and economic opportunities. We will have different material advantages, different social advantages, and different genetic advantages, but despite our inequities we deserve to all be treated as human and not somehow be treated as less than human because of our differences and starting points. We all understand this, yet it is hard to recognize our inequities, see our advantages, and understand that the reality we experience is not shaped wholly by our own doing, but often by acts and circumstances over which we have no control.


The reason we have trouble viewing the expanded idea of human rights that Frank shared is the same reason that road cycling is hard. Even when we are biking with a tailwind, we still feel air against our face, and still feel resistance from the air ahead of us, even though we receive a push from behind. Recognizing our own advantages, accepting that others lack those advantages, and seeing that though we still struggle we are greatly helped by our circumstances is challenging and humbling. But it is necessary if we are to update our views of human rights and share our humanity with those across the world.


Tackling human rights issues require that we expand our visions of equality. We must also recognize how much we are impacted by the social world around us and how much our society influences the opportunities we have. It is easier, and often encouraged in the United States, to turn away from the true human rights shortcomings in our country and assume that everyone can overcome any obstacle on their path. It is much harder, but incredibly necessary, to recognize the ways in which environmental hazards or the lack of adequate housing impact the lives of millions of people living in our society and how that reflects back on those of us who have adequate housing and advantages within our system.