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.

The Heart of the Social Contract

A lot of my writing lately could be misread as me making excuses for people who have made poor decisions and failed to be good citizens. I have been writing about the homeless and those who face chronic evictions, arguing that their failure is in many ways a larger failure of society to provide a system that will maximize human well-being and provide a reasonable floor from which everyone can rise. I have been more critical of those who dismiss the homeless and chronically evicted as lazy or morally deviant than I have been critical of those who cannot maintain a job, housing, or the support of friends and family. The reason I have been so critical of those who have, rather than those who need, is because I think we focus too much on ourselves, our own wants and desires, and our own challenges. We don’t think about ourselves in relation  to a larger society, at least not in the United States we don’t do enough thinking of ourselves and our dependence on others.
In his 1993 book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “trying to put oneself in the place of the other lies at the heart of the social contract and of social life itself.” It is important that we think about others rather than only think about ourselves. If we only think about our own problems, if we only  think about what would make us look cool, and if we only strive for our own goals, then we will fail in our obligations of the social contract. We have to think about the other people who are in our community, what they need, what their problems are, and how all of us can be part of a solution. We also have to think about the negative externalities that our actions produce in the world. What Liebow writes in the quote above is that the heart of a democracy relies upon all of us coming together and thinking not just about ourselves, but about others and about society.
I’m not saying that individually we all need to be more charitable, altruistic, and to give more of our time and money. I’m saying that we need to think more about others, and as a collective need to invest in institutions that make it easier for us to uphold the social contract. I would argue that recently we have invested in institutions which focus us inward, away from the social contract. Social media asks us to say something about our own lives, streaming services all us to focus our entertainment on our own preferences at any minute, and our current work expectations drive us to long hours so that we can own bigger and better things. The institutions which push us to be more communal have fallen to the side, requiring greater commitments from those involved, and scaring away those who would otherwise look to be involved. As Liebow explains, we need to think about others to be socially responsible and address collective problems, and this requires a shift away from our individual focused mindsets.
Judging, or Explaining, the Homeless

Judging – or Explaining – The Homeless

In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow wrote the following in the book’s preface:
“In general, I have tried to avoid labeling any of the women as mentally ill, alcoholic, drug addicted, or any other characterization that is commonly used to describe – or, worse, to explain – the homeless person. Judgments such as these are almost always made against a background of homelessness. If the same person were seen in another setting, the judgment might be altogether different.”
I find this quote about the homeless women that Liebow writes about in his book fascinating. The women who Liebow writes about would generally be considered normal if they happened to have a home, he explains. Their drinking, drug use, poor tempers, and other characteristics are used to explain away their homelessness, and as the quote above hints at, to excuse people from having to feel bad about them or to excuse people from having to help them.
People have trouble fathoming homelessness, and it becomes easier to blame the homeless than to blame society or their own actions that may have contributed to the homelessness of others. If another person’s homelessness can be explained by that person’s particular shortcomings, then the problem of homelessness can be dismissed and the homeless themselves can be ignored until they correct their own problems.
Liebow shows that this idea is a myth. The women he spent time with became homeless for a variety of reasons, but the poor characteristics used to define their homelessness generally were not that different from the poor characteristics of normal every-day people who have jobs, families, and homes. We all hear stories or have known professional people who do drugs, successfully retired individuals who drink excessively, or leaders and business owners whose behavior make us question their sanity. However, because they have homes and don’t need social assistance, their behaviors are dismissed. It is only when someone needs help, when someone has lost a home, that we suddenly judge them based on drug use or apparent mental instability.  As Liebow’s quote shows, this can seemingly be more of an excuse for a person’s state of need, and a disqualifying factor for our concern, rather than a real reason why someone is in the state they are in.
Eviction & Poverty - Housing First

Eviction & Poverty

Housing first is a common saying among those who advocate for the poor and impoverished in our nation. Instead of housing being a capstone to a responsible, socially adjusted, and respectable lifestyle, housing is seen by housing-first advocates as a cornerstone to those things. Without a stable place to live, it is almost impossible for people to rise from poverty, advocates of housing first policies argue.
Matthew Desmond shows support for a housing first approach in his book Evicted by connecting eviction with poverty and a downward life spiral. Once a stable housing situation is taken away from an individual, whether due to their own poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances, maintaining any sort of respectable and laudable lifestyle becomes nearly impossible. Desmond writes,
“Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness – this is eviction’s fallout.”
Eviction is a cause of poverty Desmond argues. When you lose your house and have to scramble to find a new place to live, don’t have a safe place to leave your children, and don’t have a place to store your things, you can hardly continue to work or search for a job. By losing your housing, you often lose your job, eliminating any hope of increasing your financial well-being. Evictions may also cause you to lose government housing aid or the support of neighbors and family members, making it even harder for you to get by. Employers won’t want to hire you if you live in a homeless shelter and you may become estranged from children or relatives. All of this only drives you deeper into poverty and despair.
A housing first approach gives people a stable place to live. It gives them an address that they can use on job applications, it takes away the stress that comes from trying to find a place to rent and gives people time to engage with neighbors or search for a job. Housing is necessary to take steps to better ones life, and can’t be seen as a capstone to reach once one’s life is on track.
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.
Saving Money in Poverty

Saving Money in Poverty

People in poverty are often criticized for the way they live and the decisions they make. From the outside it is easy to criticize the person in deep poverty who buys things they don’t need on QVC, goes to garage sales and buys junk that piles up inside and outside their home, and spends their money on fancy grocery items instead of the cheapest options. However, for people in the deepest poverty, escape to even just a more stable poverty can seem impossible, and when that is the case, there is little reason to work on saving.
Matthew Desmond demonstrates this reality by explaining the situation of a character in a trailer park named Larraine. He writes, “To Sammy [Larraine’s niece], Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.” Desmond walks through Larraine’s financial situation. She had a tiny amount of money left after paying the rent each month, and if she saved every penny that she could for the whole year, she would bank enough money to afford one month of rent. However, doing so would come at a huge cost, forgoing things that brought her a small amount of enjoyment in her trailer park poverty. Instead of penny pinching, Larraine splurged on frivolous fun items and enjoyed the small perk of getting something nice from time to time. This frustrated the people in her life who she sometimes asked for money because they saw her prioritizing face creams and steak over hot water and sufficient food for the whole month.
Desmond continues, “People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny.” When this is the life you are stuck with, then why continuously live with nothing. Why continuously try to save when a whole year of saving only gives you enough cash in the bank (or under the mattress) to be secure for one month of rent payments if something went wrong. If there is almost no hope of your financial situation improving, then why not enjoy what you can, even if it means you are going to suffer a little more in some areas or risk having a utility shut off for a few weeks.
Undeserving Poor

Undeserving Poor

Our nation encourages us to look at the outcomes within our lives as the product of our own doing. How hard we work, how much effort we make to learn and get ahead, and how well we do with making good decisions determines whether we are successful, poor, addicted to drugs, healthy, and happy. This is the narrative that drives our lives, and any failure within any area of our life ultimately represents some type of personal or moral failure by us as individuals. However, is this really an accurate way of looking at humans living within complex societies? Should everything be tied to this sense of hyper personal-responsibility?
Matthew Desmond questions this idea throughout his book Evicted, but he also shows how dominant and entrenched this idea is. Even among our nation’s poorest who have faced extreme difficulties and poverty, the idea of personal responsibility is still the driving narrative around life. Writing about individuals in poverty living in a trailer park Desmond writes, “Evictions were deserved, understood to be the outcome of individual failure. They helped get rid of the riffraff some said. No one thought the poor more underserving than the poor themselves.” Even those living in the deepest poverty, those who have ostensibly failed the most within our capitalistic society, see each other as personal failures, not as victims of a system that was stacked against them. They don’t see themselves as getting swept up in a system and society that didn’t help provide enough support, guidance, and opportunity for them. They only see the bad choices that have landed people in the trailer park, and subsequently driven them out through eviction.
The reality is that as individuals we still exist within a society. We are still dependent on numerous social systems and institutions which shape the reality of the worlds we inhabit and the opportunities and possibilities available to us.  Drug use, for example, use seems like an individual decisions, however research on adverse childhood experiences and the impact of loss of meaning, social connections, and opportunity, shows that there are social determinants that drive drug use across communities. What seems like simply an individual decision based entirely on personal morality has numerous dimensions that cannot be explained simply by individual level decisions.
Desmond argues that evictions are also not something we should see as simply personal failures. There are numerous factors that can push an individual toward a downward spiral that ends in eviction. There are numerous points where social systems and institutions seem designed to drive poor people to failure. Blaming individuals for their own failure and subsequent eviction hides the ways in which we are all responsible to a system that either lifts us all up, or allows some of us to fail spectacularly. Focusing just on an individual’s poor decisions, and not seeing those decisions as a consequence or symptom of larger structural failures means that we can never address the root causes that push people toward failure, poverty, drug use, and eviction. It is easy to blame the individual, but it is inadequate.
The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

I’ve written in the past about aid provided by charitable organizations in the United States. Aid provided by families comes with many of the same pitfalls as aid provided by charitable organizations. Our country is generally not comfortable with aid provided by a faceless government to everyone who qualifies. Many people in the country prefer that aid be provided by charities and/or religious organizations instead. Implicitly, what people seem to prefer is aid provided in a manner where certain restrictions and strings can be attached.
My two main criticisms of aid provided through religious organizations is that donors are engaging in a divine quid pro quo, giving money in exchange for divine reward. The implicit idea is that charitable aid provided to those in need comes with the expectation that individuals receiving assistance will become more religious and/or more respectful toward those churchgoers who donate money. Those who provide aid through religious and secular organizations are also able to be more selective and excludable than aid provided by government. It is easier to deny people aid for lack of a job, for drug use, for perceived sexual deviance, and other factors when you are a small charity or a church organization with a limited amount of aid available to give.
In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows that these same strings and limitations are also present in aid provided by families, another preferred method for aid and assistance that Americans favor over government aid. In telling the story of a young woman who was evicted while Desmond was researching the book, he writes, “Over the years, she had learned to ask her favorite aunt for help only during true emergencies, and evictions didn’t quality. If Arleen asked too often or for too much, she would hear about it. Merva might give her a lecture or, worse, stop returning her calls.”
Our country shames those who receive aid, and all the strings, expectations, and personal responsibility lectures that accompany familial, charitable, and religious aid contribute to that shame. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature. American’s don’t want a well functioning and efficient government program to deliver aid to any struggling American who needs it. They want a system that shames the poor, wastes their time, and limits aid if they are criminals, drug users, or sexually promiscuous.
The story of Arleen is important. Her landlord assumed she had family to stay with or to hold her over if she was evicted. We assume people can always fall back on family until they get their lives on track. We assume that family will do the tough work of instilling personal responsibility in another, or absorb the societal costs of a dejected family member on behalf of the rest of us. We set up limitations and strings on aid from other sources and make government aid hard to access so that people cannot receive aid unless they are personally responsible. When they are not, we expect their family to take up the responsibility that the needy person lacks. This is a system that deprioritizes aid to those in need in favor of principles and rule following.
Concentrating the Deviant & Derelict

Concentrating the Deviant & Derelict

“Neighborhoods marred by high poverty and crime were that way not only because poverty could incite crime, and crime could invite poverty, but also because the techniques landlords used to keep illegal and destructive activity out of rental property kept poverty out as well,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. There is an old idea I came across again recently that suggests that you are in some ways the product of the five people you spend the most time with. Who you are around and what kind of people they are like makes a difference in the person you become. Usually, in the United States, this is presented to us as a warning to be responsible for having upstanding friends and colleagues who will make us better people. But this sentiment can also be understood not as a rallying call for personal responsibility, but as a cudgel against personal responsibility.
We are not our own independent entities free from societal influence and pressures.  The world around us shapes how we see that very same world. It influences what we see as possible, moral, acceptable, and excusable. It defines our horizon and opens or closes certain doors and directions. It challenges the idea that our life is entirely within our own hands. Desmond’s quote above shows that poverty and crime run together, and it shows that if you are poor, you are probably stuck around criminals, meaning that the poorest among us are stuck among the worst among us. If the saying that you are the people you spend most of your time around, then those in poverty are stuck becoming deviants.
“This also mean[s] that violence, drug activity, deep poverty, and other social problems coalesced at a much smaller, more acute level than the neighborhood. They gather[ ] at the same address,” continues Desmond.
Our market approach to housing means that those who have a history of not making rent payments, who have a history of drug abuse or violence, and those who have made poor decisions in the past are grouped together, often ending up in the same household splitting rent. If you are the product of the five people around you the most, then being surrounded by only other derelict or deviant individuals cannot possibly make you anything other than the worst version of yourself possible. None of us would want to live surrounded by poor, defeated, and destitute individuals. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see how being stuck in such a situation would make it effectively impossible for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unless we are a truly remarkable person.
Our failures of housing policy have resulted in a dramatic economic segregation. Understandably, all of us as individuals want to move away from places of crime, drug use, and poverty (I am guilty here as well). We want to limit the amount of time we have to interact with the deviant and derelict, but in doing so, we cluster those poor, violent, and/or apathetic individuals together, creating the conditions for a downward spiral for anyone who gets caught amongst our lowest ranks. This is not a problem of just the individuals stuck in these situations. It is a problem and failure of society more broadly. A failure to ensure that poverty does not pit one solely among deviants. A failure to give those deviants a safe place to take steps to improve their lives. And a failure to demonstrate social responsibility to work with the destitute to show them that they are valued and can indeed improve their lives.
A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

A Clash Between Personal Responsibility and Structural Forces

Personal responsibility in the United States is huge. It drives much of how we understand ourselves, others, and our economic and political systems. We believe that the individual has the power to shape their life for the better, to overcome obstacles, and to find success as long as they take the responsibility to do the right things. We reward those who are responsible and succeed and we offer little aid or assistance for those who can’t seem to figure it out on their own.
“Yet laying the blame on a lack of personal responsibility obscures the fact that there are powerful and ever-changing structural forces at play,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States there is opportunity to achieve the American Dream and to reach for a better life, but there are also challenging factors that limit the opportunities for some while amplifying the opportunities for others. There are real structural forces which limit the opportunities and second chances for some people, and are ignored by those who don’t face such challenges.
Writing specifically about the low-wage job market, Edin and Shaefer continue, “whatever can be said about the characteristics of the people who work low-wage jobs, it is also true that the jobs themselves too often set workers up for failure.”
Edin and Shaefer explore commonalities among low-wage jobs that seem designed to provide marginal benefits to employers by making the jobs themselves more challenging for the employees. Service sector jobs often have unpredictable hours, don’t come with any benefits, don’t include opportunities for promotion, and can be physically demanding without appropriate supplies and materials for employees to complete their work. When low-wage workers are desperate for employment, they cannot complain to any government agencies about unfair or poor working conditions. If the employer is shut down, then they loose their source of income, even if it is dehumanizing. As a result, hard work doesn’t pay in these low-wage jobs. After enough poor experiences where working hard doesn’t help someone get ahead, it is not surprising that many opt out all together or put forward minimal effort when they do get an opportunity.
The larger structural forces, however, often end up being ignored. In the United States we chose just to focus on the individual and their responsibility, blaming them for quitting a job which was designed to make them fail. We blame the individual for not being smart enough, skilled enough, or resilient enough to stick it out and get to a better position after starting at a minimum-wage, dead-end job. Personal responsibility and structural forces clash, but from the outside we are only able to focus on the failures of the individual, giving little thought to the larger forces at play.