Many Homeless Want to Work

Many Homeless Want to Work

It is tempting to look at homeless people and people with signs on street corners and hold the opinion that the person simply needs to get a job and all their problems would be fixed. If they would get a job, even if it was physically demanding, low-wage, and/or a dirty job, they wouldn’t be begging for money or sleeping in shelters. We assume people don’t want to work and would rather beg and take a hand-out.
However, when Elliot Liebow spent time among homeless women in Washington DC and interviewed them to understand their lives, he discovered that many of them did want to work, but were prevented from finding and maintaining a job by a number of factors beyond their control. He writes, “At a very general level of unexamined beliefs, most women accepted the proposition that a job is the way out of homelessness. But when they confronted their own concrete situations, they knew this was not true for most of them.” Liebow examines many of the barriers that the women faced with working, and also highlighted how several of the women he met in shelters did have jobs, but still could not rent an apartment.
Some jobs are too far away for someone to commit to. Job security is a challenge for any homeless person, where one slip up or unfair customer could lead to the loss of their job. Additionally, night shifts are not possible for homeless people with no place to sleep during the day, and jobs that don’t have predictable schedules can be extra challenging for homeless or low-income individuals to maintain. If your work schedule is unknown in advance, it is hard to plan appropriately, and if you can lose shifts when things get slow, that means that your housing could be in jeopardy.
Liebow also stresses that it is not simply the money and the desire to no longer be homeless that motivated the women he spoke with to work. “For most people …” he wrote, [the] social value of work is experienced, at the individual level, as a principal source of independence and self-respect.” Work is something we take pride in. Few of us truly want a job where we get paid to sit on our rear ends without any expectations that we actually do anything. While we all work toward retirement, we also want to have meaningful and fulfilling work to do. Liebow continues, “it is through work that we engage the world and become a part of it, and through work that we lay claim to membership in the larger community and, in getting paid for our work, have that membership confirmed by others.” Many homeless individuals want to work, to get money and get off the streets, but also to be accepted members of their society. This is a reality we don’t all recognize or understand (even about ourselves) and we don’t always recognize the barriers that keep people from finding a job that will help bring them back into society in a meaningful and productive way.
Apologizing for Existence

Apologizing for Existing

“Larraine learned a long time ago not to apologize for her existence,” writes Matthew Desmond about one of the individuals he profiles for his book Evicted. Larraine lived in a trailer park, barely getting by on social assistance checks from the government. She spent unwisely, but, with no hope of getting to a more stable financial position in her lifetime, saw little reason to live more frugally.
The simple line from Desmond tells us a lot about people living in poverty. They are outcasts in our country and are looked down-upon no matter what they do. They are treated as if they are not doing the right thing, not working hard enough, and not deserving of smiles, compliments, or sympathy. Poor people are made to feel bad about themselves, about their reliance on others, and about the help they need from the government, from charity, and from private donations. They are made to feel as though they must apologize for existing and being so poor.
The narrative in our country is that one simply has to work hard and everything will be ok. As long as you are industrious and self-disciplined, you can have a car, a nice place to live, a TV, and good food to eat. You will be respected if you either work hard and earn your way, or have enough money on your own to get by without help from others. The reality for many, however, is that you must work very hard for very little, subsist on the same mediocre food all the time, and live without any frivolous spending or enjoyment, otherwise the more important bills won’t get paid. And even if you do all that, people still won’t want to associate with you, won’t want to talk to you, and won’t look at you as if you deserve to be treated like a fully human individual.
Is it any wonder that people opt out and chose to live with short-term pleasures, like expensive steak or commemorative merchandise, at the expense of making their gas payment for a month? This is the situation Larraine found herself in, and rather than acquiescing to the disparaging looks and disappointment from other people, Larraine chose to embrace her seemingly irrational and unwise spending habits. She chose not to apologize for her poverty stricken existence, to be human, and to accept who she was, even if it was not what the rest of her society wanted her to be.
Shifting Away From The Drug War

Shifting Away from the Drug War

In the context of supporting the war on drugs, Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, describes most people as, “admirable people who have a series of understandable worries about the alternative. They support the drug war out of compassion for all the people they fear might become victims if we relaxed the laws. They are good people. They are acting out of decency.”

 

However, Hari believes that support for the drug war is actually more costly in the long run, and damages the lives of those who use drugs to an unreasonable extent. In the book, Hari looks at recreational drug users who don’t develop addictions and don’t generally cause a lot of harms through drug use. He compares these individuals to those who do develop addictions, and who contribute to crime and public health problems as a result of their drug dependencies. A key difference between the groups is that many of the people who develop addictions also have severe trauma in their lives. They are often isolated, have had adverse childhood experiences, and are suffering from physical or psychological pain without a supportive community to aid them. Not all harmless recreational drug users are free from pain and trauma, and not all addicts have a traumatic past, but the frequency of past trauma and ongoing psychological pain is a substantial difference between the two groups. Punishment and making life harder for drug addicts who have experienced pain hurts them and makes it more likely they will feel stuck and isolated, with no alternatives to alleviate their suffering besides the temporary relief of continued drug use.

 

The idea of punishment for drug use makes sense when we think about recreational drug users who we want to prevent from causing problems as a result of drug use. But those individuals, aside from contributing to an illicit economy, are not  contributing to the major drug use problems that we see. We can see this in our alcohol policy. Responsible recreational drinkers are not problems, but people who either have trouble consuming alcohol responsibly or simply chose not to consumer responsibly (perhaps college binge drinkers fit in both categories) do create problems for the rest of us. Helping an alcoholic is often understood as helping them develop a safe social setting where they can avoid alcohol or use it responsibly with people who understand their addiction and/or other alcohol challenges.

 

At another point, Hari writes, “We all want to protect children from drugs. We all want to keep people from dying as a result of drug use. We all want to reduce addiction. And now the evidence strongly suggests that when we move beyond the drug war, we will be able to achieve those shared goals with much greater success.” Moving beyond the drug war means that we will develop real, meaningful treatments and supports for drug addicts. It means we can have safe, legal drugs that people can use in supervised settings. It means that people with a history of drug use won’t be barred from ever finding even the most menial of jobs, and will be able to reintegrate back into society, rather than being forced out into situations where continued drug use is almost inevitable. Our approach to drug policy via the drug war has had disastrous consequences, and Hari encourages us to reconsider the path we are on.
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.

Twice as Good

Something I had felt but never put into coherent thoughts was the idea that racial minorities have had to be perfect throughout time to win the trust and respect of the majority population. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats expresses this idea more clearly than I had ever managed to do. He is critical of the idea of double standards, that in order for people to be respected they need to be virtually without fault. When it comes to these types of double standards he writes,

 

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.” These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. … No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to  take twice as much.”

 

Double standards between races lead to frustrations for minority populations because it steals part of their humanity. We are all going to make incredible mistakes along our paths and in search of what we want, but when you are forced to be perfect to overcome the prejudices of another, your mistakes become much more meaningful. Our nation has held down African American’s by restricting where they could buy housing, limiting who they could marry, and over arresting and over sentencing crimes by African Americans. We have a romanticized vision of the Civil Rights movement, and criticize African American protests of today. Historically, African American’s have been given less than freedom and opportunities than other people, and we have told them that protesting is not the way to address their inequities. We don’t expect them to be human and speak out against a system that fosters such inequalities, or is at least still haunted by the ghosts of such injustice, but instead to succeed and thrive in spite of such injustice and to be superhuman.

 

When we do this we ask a part of our nation to be more than the rest with less than the rest. We decide that we will only respect black people if they become successful and abandon the culture from which they came. What is worse, when they do find success, we use individual success to show that anyone can overcome the obstacles placed on them by society, and we chose to believe that the injustices faced by masses are simply excuses of laziness and failure. We do not see the double standards we set for African American populations, and we do not see the reality that we are asking them to be twice as good before we give people the respect they deserve simply by being human.

Incarceration

Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

 

A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.

 

A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff  Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.

 

Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.

 

There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.

Love the People

In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker describes a woman he met who shaped his life when he was living in a high rise housing unit in Newark, New Jersey named Ms. Virginia Jones. She was the leader of the Tenants Association, and a strong leader advocating for more support for the families stuck in Brick Tower, the building that she and Booker lived in when they met.

 

Booker had many direct interactions with Ms. Jones, as did almost everyone living in the building, and he was struck by her leadership. Reflecting on her leadership he writes, “I would come to know that Ms. Jones embodied a critical ideal of leadership: you can’t lead the people unless you love the people, she was a leader in that community because people knew she loved them, no matter what. She had an infinite reservoir of love.”

 

Many people want to be in leadership positions and want to be loved by the people around them, but are unable to truly connect with the people in their community or organization. The lesson Booker learned from Ms. Jones is that before you can receive the love of others, you must first become outwardly loving, interested in connecting with others, and truly committed to being there for the people around you. By showing your love for the people around you, you can build trust and develop the leadership skills necessary to receive that same love in a reciprocal fashion.

 

Ms. Jones challenged Booker and challenged the people in the community to become something better and to become more responsive to their common needs. She looked out for the community because she loved the community. She was not looking out only for herself out of self love, and as a result she was loved and respected by the rest of the community.

Organizational Structure

In his book Return on Character author Fred Kiel addresses ways in which a business leader’s strong moral character can boost the bottom  line for the company they work for, and how their strong moral character can have a meaningful and positive impact on the lives of the employees working for them.  Part of the way that strong character can translate into a more engaged and fulfilled workforce and a better bottom line is through an organizational structure which supports the employees of the company, and helps them do their best work with the ethos of their virtuoso CEO. A strong structure can help guide a company by allowing everyone involved to act in a morally defined manner, helping everyone do better work.  Kiel sets up the idea that a great business structure depends on a strong moral ethos developed by the leadership team and the CEO:

 

“Even an ideal structure offers no guarantee that the dynamics will be positive, harmonious, and energized.  As the ROC [Return on Character] data revealed, this is where the character habits of the executive team come into play.”

 

Kiel is explaining that an efficient organizational structure within the business is not enough for great business success.  His argument is that CEOs need to develop moral habits and characteristics that help build people up by treating them as more than just extra hands on deck.  When the CEO is able to truly live through this idea and create and shape a leadership team that can spread this idea, then everyone within the company will be taken care of, and they will feel as though they work in an environment where people truly care about them and want to help them do their best work.

 

The opposite end of this scale would be a self focused CEO who displays character habits of a dog-eat-dog, success hungry individual. This type of character will show that what is most important is personal growth, even at the expensive of others. They likely will not develop strong leadership teams that can put the interests and goals of employees at the same level of importance as their own. As a result, employees feel disconnected and have no reason to demonstrate strong moral habits within their own work.

 

By voicing, living up to, and building a leadership team that is focused on strong moral goals, a CEO can create a structure in which all actors of the company are able to make positive moral decisions and feel encouraged to do their best work.  The strong moral values of the company will be reflected beyond the work space and into the world in which the company provides value to those with whom they serve.  Reinforcing this structure and maintaining it requires more than just a keen eye for efficiency, and requires a true respect for human beings.

The Value of All Lives

Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do quotes Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University, who responds to the idea of a global society in which all people extend empathy toward all others. Bloom writes and is quoted by Singer, “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as a family — that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” What Bloom and Singer would argue is that we need to be able to look at the world as a whole and our position in the world to understand that no matter what, our life holds the same value as those around us and those in distant countries.

 

It is challenging, and something I have struggled with overtime, to recognize that all human beings are equal in terms of the value of our their lives. It is written into the United States Constitution and something we seem to carry with us wherever we go, but actually diving into the meaning of equality and following through on that meaning is quite difficult.  It is hard to see someone asking for money on the street and remember that their life is just as important as our life.  I think that part of the challenge lies in the ways we count success.  Looking at the monetary value of someones life, their status as a leader or policy maker, or even the influence of another’s life distracts us from the idea that everyone’s life is of equal value.  We are not equal in terms of our talents, desires, opportunities, or in the value we return to the world, but we should all be equal politically, in the eyes of the law, and when we truly stop to reflect, in the respect we garner from every individual.

 

I think one of the reasons we struggle with equality is because we are not willing to see the inequalities in our lives.  We like to say that everyone is equal to us and assert that we are good people who treat everyone the same because we don’t notice the inequalities. The truth is that we do recognize inequalities and they factor into our decisions. If we can be honest with ourselves about the way that our inequalities impact our decisions then we can begin to better recognize what equality means between human beings, and we can better respond and act equally towards others.

 

Singer and Bloom would argue that we need to build a level of self-awareness in our lives to recognize the way we treat ourselves, those we love, those who are close to us and belong to the same tribe, and those who are distant, look differently, and come from underserved backgrounds.  If we do not recognize how we are treating not just those close to us, but everyone in the world, then we are not able to take steps to improve the way we act toward others.  By understanding that those in other parts of the world should be treated with the same respect and value as those in our community, we can meaningfully incorporate everyone into the progress of the world. We can use our resources to better the entire planet and we can decide to use our resources in the places where they will have the greatest impact.