Homeless Boredom

Homeless Boredom

In a recent episode of his podcast, Tyler Cowen interviewed a man experiencing chronic homelessness in Washington DC. He refers to himself as an NFA (no fixed address) and goes by the name Alexander the Grate. He was introduced to Cowen by James Deutsch, a Curator at the Smithsonian who had profiled Alexander in past scholarly work.
One of the questions that Cowen asked Alexander was how he spent his time as an NFA. He responded with a number of free things he could take part in around DC. There are Smithsonian exhibits and events that are free to attend, numerous small film festival events throughout the year, and various  free public events that he could attend. In his response, he stated, “we were all sober. We had something to do to occupy our time. … We had to do something to fill up the spaces of our sobriety and to satisfy our mind as well as entertainment and keep our mind alive, besides the soup stuff.”
His quote shows that the homeless needed something to do to stay occupied, and luckily for Alexander, Washington DC offered plenty of ways to engage his mind and fill his time. However, most homeless people in our country do not live in Washington DC, and don’t have access to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and all the free public events that take place in our National Capital. For homeless people across our country, boredom, not an overwhelming number of events and activities, is the norm.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about the boredom that homeless women face every day. “Along with perennial fatigue,” writes Liebow, “boredom was one of the great trials of homelessness.” Humans are social creatures, but in America the homeless are excluded. People are afraid of them for numerous reasons and don’t want to interact with them. We don’t want to see them around our public events, and we don’t want them to occupy the same public spaces that we occupy. As a result, homeless individuals become outcasts, forced into boredom and isolation. We want them to get a job, to get a place to live, and to re-enter society in an acceptable and respectable way, but we shut them out and leave them with nothing to entertain their minds or fill their time. As Liebow notes when profiling one of the women he met, we leave them to speak with only the birds.
Homelessness, life on the streets, and isolation seems to break people. Once someone is speaking to themselves or the birds they become even more of a social outcast, reinforcing the isolation that has broken them. I think there is an important paradox for us to acknowledge here. We want the homeless to turn their lives around, but we exclude them, force them into crushing boredom, and then criticize them when they break. We can’t expect people to suffer in such boredom and then rejoin society. We can’t expect people to face isolation and then turn things around to re-integrate. Boredom and isolation are not something we should just ignore because people are homeless, they are real problems that make life harder for the homeless, and make it less likely that they will ever become part of society again.
Integrating the Poor

Integrating the Poor

In $2.00 A Day, Kathrin Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write the following about working to improve the lives for the poorest people in the Untied States, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Shaefer and Edin explain that most Americans think we should be doing more to help the poor, but that they also dislike the idea of giving free aid to the undeserving. Consequently, any programs that are designed to help the poor, the authors argue, should be generous, but should match what Americans believe is moral and fair, otherwise it will leave the poor as an undeserving separate class, and keep them from integrating with society.
This is an important idea to consider. We want to do more to help the poor, and many would argue that we have an obligation to help the poorest among us live dignified lives with a reasonable floor set for their income, healthcare, education, and access to opportunities to advance. At the same time, giving aid and benefits to those who are not seen as deserving, particularly in America where we constantly judge ourselves and others on measures of hard work and moral character, will create problems and schisms within society. The result would be a form of economic segregation, cutting the poorest off from the rest of society, perpetuating and reinforcing the existing problems that we see among the poorest individuals in the nation.
The authors continue, “the ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor – particularly the $2.00-a-day poor – into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.”
One of the great failings of our current society is our de facto acceptance of economic segregation in the United States.  For a few decades the poor were stuck in dense and ignored city centers while the middle class fled to suburbs to live out the American Dream and the wealthy locked themselves within gated communities to keep their vast wealth to themselves, away from the prying eyes of everyone else. The poor were cut off from any real or meaningful interaction with the middle and upper classes.  Zoning regulations and the way we developed neighborhoods meant that people in certain areas all had similar incomes. The rich were grouped among the rich, the middle class among the middle class, the poor among the poor, and the poorest of the poor amongst only themselves. Real community connection for each group dissipated, with no group fully comprehending the struggles, fears, and problems of the others.
The poorest of the poor were the ones most hurt by this economic segregation, and it is one of the first things the authors suggest we address to begin to help the poor. Their first suggestion is a jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone can do some sort of work to earn money and be seen as deserving for further aid. In the end, however, I think the authors would agree that we need to find ways to better integrate society and rebuild community organizations and institutions that help bring people together, not keep them separated in their own homes and neighborhoods, where everyone else that they interact with in a meaningful way is like they are. We cannot address the worst poverty in our country if we don’t find a way to overcome economic segregation and to better integrate the poor into society in a meaningful way.

Providing Meaningful Integration Opportunities for Our Youth

In The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about a decline in people moving in the United States. Rates of people moving across state lines, from one city to another, or even just across town seem to be on the decline. People seem to be less willing to take risks and put themselves in new places. As a result, we have fewer people from diverse backgrounds meeting each other and getting to know each other. For children, this means they are more likely to grow up around other children like themselves, and are not as likely experience different cultures, communities, and families. They are not likely to meet other kids from different racial, socioeconomic status (SES), and cultural backgrounds.


Cowen identifies one counterexample to this trend in his book, but notes that it is more of a temporary departure from the trend rather than a clear reversal. Writing about young college educated couples, Cowen describes a movement back toward cities, often living in artistic neighborhoods with interesting homes and fun opportunities to engage with city life. This gives cities new life and creates pockets of diversity, but only until the children of these young couples reach school age.


“When they have children and it is time to send the kids to school, they often move to the suburbs, or to a more expensive part of the same city, or to a different city altogether. The integration is a kind of temporary experiment in white lives, to be reversed once the next generation comes along. It is good that so many people are willing to make this temporary experiment but bad that it doesn’t have greater staying power or turn into a means of integrating young children.”


I have not spent a lot of time focused on housing policy or urban planning, but I think part of Cowen’s lament can be explained by a failure in both areas. I currently live toward the outskirts of Reno, Nevada, and live in a rather diverse neighborhood. Our home prices are not as out of control as other areas in Reno, and as a result we have a racially diverse set of people in our small out of the way neighborhood. However, it is hard to get to where we live. There are a only few main streets which all get very backed-up with traffic. We also don’t have a good park in our neighborhood, lack good sidewalks, and don’t have a lot of street lights. These factors diminish the attractiveness of the neighborhood and reduce the sense of (or opportunity for) community among the homeowners and renters here.


My wife and I are looking to move to part of town that is more accessible and easier for our work commutes. We hope to have a place with nice sidewalks for walking the dog and some open spaces for picnics or more dog activities. We have been looking into parts of town with higher home prices, which will likely result in us living in a more appealing, yet less diverse part of the city.


The failure of housing and urban policy is in the way we set up neighborhoods to encourage homogeneity. I understand from a housing developer that it is easier to have 3 or 4 relatively similar track-homes, however this creates a neighborhood where all the residents will have roughly the same income. Lower income individuals who cannot afford one of the houses will be pushed to less desirable neighborhoods and those who can afford to buy into the homogeneity will do so. Repeat this process enough times and you end up with the type of segregation Cowen described in the quote above.


I don’t want to approach the issue by saying that we will all benefit by making our neighborhoods more diverse. I don’t want to just accept that this is how things are and that “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) sentiments are too strong for us to make changes. Instead, I want to be able to start a conversation that encourages us to live up to our belief that everyone deserves an equal opportunity.


Right now, there are children in my neighborhood who face a long commute if they want to be socially engaged with sports, music, or other extracurricular activities. These kids don’t have great places to go to play outside, and don’t have opportunities to connect with people near them to build connections to help them later in life. As a contrast to their experiences, I grew up in a neighborhood with ample space to play outside and be active, and I had neighbors who had connections that have helped me. If we truly believe in the idea of equality of opportunity, we need to find better ways to integrate young children and reverse the failures of our housing and urban development policies. These children deserve opportunities to maximize their lives and shouldn’t be locked out of opportunity simply because they grow up in parts of a city that don’t offer the same access to resources as children in other parts of the city.