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.