I’m from the Bay Area and have spent many days hanging out in San Francisco. Against the backdrop of a picturesque setting, the streets are an adolescent’s playground. But the streets of San Francisco are also home to countless individuals who are without homes.
As we walk past these individuals slumped against a wall, dejected by life’s hardships, we find it easier to ignore them than to acknowledge their existence. In that moment of recognition, when you don’t just see the story of their lives written all over their weathered hands, tattered clothes and vacant stares, but actually feel the struggles of life they’ve endured in the way the human spirit seems to be fading from their listless eyes, we seem to be accepting society’s fable that we have succeeded through hard work, and they have failed due to their own foibles.
This is the cognitive dissonance that rationalizes the wealth disparities, a way for us to do away with the pangs of guilt, sorrow, and empathy stoked by our conscience at seeing someone’s brother or son broken by needless suffering. Undoubtedly for most of us, this rationalization rings hollow. So instead, we pretend they aren’t there. It’s easier that way.
When an individual looks upset or distressed, a common response is usually, “What’s the matter?” or “What’s wrong?”
The idea behind these probing questions is that one can better remedy a solution when there is a clear cause to the problem. The same can be said of homelessness; however, society rarely engages a homeless individual and asks, “What’s the matter?”
Instead, we pool information to find patterns that provide a causal connection between the data and the problem, often resulting in misinformation and clouded perceptions regarding the true content of the crisis. Using such data, some scholars inadequately suggest that homelessness is a phenomenon of the drunk, the addicted and the just plain shiftless. They refuse to take into account the socio-economic structure that may unfairly disadvantage these individuals.
A comprehensive approach to defining the root causes of homelessness would take into account not only individual idiosyncrasies that can result in homelessness, but also, the overarching structure that enables these individuals to fall through our tattered social safety net. In turn, this would provide a firm foundation for making important strides in tackling homelessness in the future.
Theories that focus on individual causes of homelessness tend to blame the victim. In their study of homelessness, Alice Baum and Donald Burnes argue homeless individuals are disaffiliated with society due to “psychiatric illness, substance abuse or legal troubles on social networks.” As a result of the cause residing in individual behavior, the only necessary remedy would be more treatment centers to foster more socially acceptable behavior, completely disregarding any larger societal influences. This would also suggest that since homelessness has increased in the last two decades, its aforementioned “causes” would have also experienced an increase, although the rates for psychiatric illness and substance abuse are no higher now than in decades past.
Baum and Burnes claim that focusing on affordable housing without first addressing the “disabling conditions” of the homeless population is akin to supplying an individual with a walking stick after breaking one’s foot without first resetting the bone and applying a cast. The analogy is a convenient manner to prove their point, but it does not quite capture the reality of the situation.
Advocates for providing low-income housing are not trying to apply a bandage to a broken bone but, rather, are trying to address what they see as the root causes of homelessness. These advocates are not necessarily attempting a solution for people who are already homeless but rather, to continue the analogy, the advocates return to the scene of the accident to determine the conditions that allowed the individual to break his or her foot (dangerous walking conditions, potholes, etc.) and eliminate those conditions to prevent future accidents.
The scholar James Wright describes the current socio-economic situation as a “pool of risk” in which the demand for low-income housing far outweighs the supply. He continues by saying, “And given that a pool of risk has been created, it comes as no great surprise that those within the pool who do become homeless are drawn heavily from the most vulnerable ranks of the poverty population — the ill, the addicted, and the socially disaffiliated.”
Thus, when portrayed in this light, homelessness reduction is completely and utterly intertwined with poverty reduction. Given that the homeless population is mostly a subset of the impoverished population, it comes as no surprise that, “the most important elements of both long-term and immediate solutions to homelessness are housing, jobs and social services.” Likewise, efforts to combat homelessness cannot be decentralized to localities and private charities, but rather, must contain a concentrated effort at the federal level so that we can establish a united front against homelessness.
Cities, in a perfect example of individual rationality leading to collective irrationality, have actively sought to “criminalize” the homeless in their efforts to decrease the homeless population. The idea behind this is that homelessness is bad for business and criminalizing it enables municipalities to use the law to remove the homeless from public sight. However, this “solution” merely addresses a result of homelessness rather than attempting to address homelessness itself. With a concerted effort at the federal level and a focus on the structural cause of homelessness, the U.S. can once and for all make impressive reductions in the homeless, and by extension, the population of impoverished peoples as a whole.