In The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes:
“When we try to understand this issue, it helps to remember that if bad luck were the main cause of homelessness, good luck would suffice to end it. Luck is by definition always changing. Thus if bad luck were the main cause of homelessness, most people would be homeless occasionally, but few would be homeless for long. In reality, most people are never homeless, a sizable number are homeless briefly, and a few are homeless for long periods. The long-term homeless are mostly people for whom almost everything imaginable has gone wrong for many years. Many are heavy drug or alcohol users. Many have severe mental disabilities. Even those who do not have such easily labeled problems have the kind of bad luck that recurs over and over, causing them to lose one job after another and one friend after another. …
Sympathetic writers and advocates often dwell on bad luck because they want to convince the public that the homeless are victims of circumstances beyond their control and deserve our help. This strikes me as a myopic strategy. It inspires incredulity among the worldly, and it leads the credulous to underestimate how much help the long-term homeless really need.”
These two paragraphs are a great summation of a lot of my thinking and also serve as a metacommentary on my recent writing about the homeless. When I imagine a homeless person, I generally do believe that numerous factors beyond their control had to exist for them to end up homeless. Even if it can be shown that they made poor choices, have generally been lazy their whole life, and have a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, I don’t think it is entirely fair to place all the blame for homelessness on the individual. I think bad luck, potentially starting by being born to unsupportive parents or being born with genes that make one less likely to succeed (genes contributing to ADHD or increased chances of addiction), can contribute to homelessness far more than good luck can contribute to getting out of homelessness. Still, I think Jencks’ point that those who advocate for better ways of thinking about the homeless can overplay the bad luck argument.
Homelessness is a serious problem that would be incredibly expensive to eliminate across the country. We currently don’t have the manpower to give adequate mental healthcare to everyone who needs it along with subsequent counseling and simple life skills training. We would have to pay all the people who help the homeless adapt to living in their own space. We would likely have to establish some sort of method to provide currently illegal drugs in a safe manner, another costly and complicated set of policies and institutions. It is not just a matter of giving the homeless a handout, it is a matter of reshaping society and reorganizing our resources – a difficult, time intensive, and resource intensive process that couldn’t be done overnight, or even in a decade.
Some people are homeless for a short stretch due to bad luck, and their experience in homelessness, in terms of support they are or are not offered should not be determined by how we think and feel about the chronically homeless. Some individuals chose homelessness and some simply have no way to escape it at this point, and our policies generally stem from how we think about them. This is a mistake, especially if we want to help those who may fall into homelessness, but could escape it with early interventions. In the effort to bolster support and show that not all homelessness is chronic homelessness, we may overplay the bad luck argument, leading to disappointment when we don’t see changes in the visibly and chronically homeless. The problem is complex, includes different populations with different needs, and is easy to oversimplify arguments surrounding homelessness. Nevertheless, I think the impulse and general feeling of most people is that the homeless are lazy derelicts. I think we overplay the role of personal responsibility in society, and we fail to recognize how much our social responsibilities (or lack thereof) contribute to the problems we see around us. I think we should be honest about the costs, timelines, and effort involved with addressing homelessness, but I still feel that we need to make the argument that homelessness doesn’t happen in individual vacuums and that we shouldn’t simply blame the homeless for being homeless. We can discuss the bad luck that many people face on a path toward homelessness, and we can also address the social responsibility we all have in helping people avoid such deep failures.