The Problem of the Homeless: No problem
If you aren’t homeless, the only problem with the homeless is to avoid them. If it comes to mind at all, it’s an unpleasant fact that affects someone else, and, like any other unpleasantry, should be dumped somewhere else.
Most approaches to dealing with the homeless seem to involve trying to move them out of the business districts. Those charged developing plans, mostly paid for by cities, understandably emphasize constructing “homeless centers” in far away, unused places, vacant lots, abandoned warehouses, and on distant government property in the desert, swamp or somewhere, anywhere, away from the bus lines. So they can’t get back too easily, one suspects.
But it’s easy to see why that is. The homeless are a plague in downtown Los Angeles, for example: co-workers whisper that it’s to be avoided after dark. Even in the daytime the dual gauntlets of panhandlers while getting to work and going home is depressing and sometimes dangerous.
The real problem of the homeless is in false approaches to dealing with it: the avoidance of addressing the issue in the first place.
What makes this problem difficult is regarding the homeless people as the problem, instead of as people in the grip of a situation and in need of help. Such false problems are not unusual: what makes the transportation problem most difficult is, for example, is regarding bus riders as a nuisance to be subsidized instead of as customers or citizens in need of transport. Most programs funded to deal with such problems, of course, don’t want the problem to vanish, for that would eliminate their grant money and their jobs.
In California, the most that’s been done for the homeless has been in Santa Monica, which tolerated and fed the homeless who flocked there, although lately density seems to have overwhelmed hospitality. Even Santa Monica did not regard homelessness as a social problem, analyze it, and try to solve it. One suspects they wound up with the homeless from many cities, overwhelming their resources.
The problem can’t be solved until it’s at least recognized. To make an approach, let’s look at “the homeless” as people who have characteristics that land them in the situation of not having a home, as opposed to characterizing them by the situation they are in.
Analyzing, there are, simplistically, four classes of people who may find themselves homeless, requiring four treatment methodologies. Lumping them together makes any treatment needlessly intractable, as difficult as “fighting crime” or dumping recyclables in with discards.
There are economic, behavioral, medical, social and other contributing factors.
- THE HOBO, persons voluntarily and rebelliously who don’t want to be tied to jobs and responsibilities and don’t want to submit as employees. The hobo regards being employed as just that — being used. They are content being homeless. This is the traditional person who will work when necessary, at temporary tasks, but just avoids schedules, responsibilities, taxes, etc., even though they may have a history of doing so at one time. Avoiding social rules, these homeless are out-of-doors by choice. They regard their lifestyle as their freedom.
- DRUGS. Some drug addicts find themselves more interested in the drug than in providing shelter. Their addiction has disrupted all other activities. It’s said that 90% of all burglaries are done to get drug money, which means that dedicated drug users will intersect with the criminal justice system and strain their personal safety net. Many of these who fall through cursory drug “treatment” programs wind up lumped in as “homeless,” exacerbating the problem for those homeless for other, less recondite reasons.
- MENTALLY ILL. The increasingly high cost of institutionalizing the mentally ill has led to their “outpatient” treatment in the community, a way of cost-shifting. The so-called miracle of behavioral drugs had led to optimistic claims that outpatient care plus a ready supply of drugs would enable a more normal life for many of those who would traditionally have been confined or hospitalized. Some are eligible for government checks or other aid, but without a relentless regime of taking their medications they are unable to manage their money. Some may not even know of benefits they are entitled to, no one is there to help them. These are often the gritty homeless, who push shopping carts, dress in multiple layers of filthy clothing, wrap up in plastic bags, forget to wash even when it’s possible, and so on. Some are outpatient mentally ill who may have fallen off their treatment plan when they fail to get or take their medications. Others are victims of dementia and other mental disorders, ADD, anger management, prideful withdrawal, defensive, self-flagellation, low self-image, etc.
- ECONOMIC DISPLACED. These people have fallen into the homeless state because of tough economic conditions that force them out of their normal economic existence. Trying to maintain the ideal of “my home is my castle” requires the expense of a complete establishment — utilities, telephone, pots and pans, appliances, washing, payments, rents or taxes, etc. Society can be regarded as offering a “game” to each participant: play by the rules, get a job, and expect a home and resources. Increasingly, falling wages and rising rents puts strains on those living from paycheck to paycheck, making it impossible for them to succeed at the “game” of being an employee and living in separate apartments. They try to follow the rules, but even a slight strain to their finances, uninsured medical problems, or just vicissitudes of daily life may drain their meager reserves, if any, and result in their losing shelter. Some of these displaced workers are able to maintain their jobs even while living on the street, in their car, or in shelters. Some are able, especially with help, to move back into the class of the working poor living in shelter.
The simplistic solution is to categorize all “homeless” by their position and lump them all together. Obviously, it’s much easier from the standpoint of the social program, especially when applying for grants.
Relegating all classes of the homeless to homeless shelters results in difficulties including resistance amongst even the more desperate. Many homeless shelters have dismal conditions created by the mentally ill, drunk, angry, disorderly, unwashed, dirty or other problem residents who may have obnoxious and pernicious issues ranging from smoking cigarettes to injecting heroin.
Needed are resourceful programs dealing with each of the skein of problems subsumed under the rubric of “homelessness”.
Scholium and Example.
One problem that the homeless do bring to the mainstream is not being able to use the bathroom of most merchants. Not all the homeless create this problem, but merchants legitimately refuse to make their restrooms public because some of those living on the streets use them in so negligent a way that the facilities would require immediate cleanup. This is a key example of how one class of homeless create a problem that impinges on other homeless, and on the mainstream.
It is also a scholium for how we are dealing with the problem from the wrong end. Instead of solving the problem of where the homeless can use the bathroom, defecate, urinate, clean up, our inaction denies everyone, without exception, the ability to use the facilities in areas where the homeless congregate. It can be ignored because in better areas, bathrooms are open to all; but it is a severe problem in the central city where homeless proliferate. Even purchasing from the merchant is usually not enough to gain the right to use their bathroom, due to the homeless influence.
Looking at this problem toward a solution, it’s easy to find, even without dealing with the rest of the problems of the homeless. Technology can define public bathrooms, capable of automatic flush-out, so that they can be periodically cleaned even if the homeless hole-up in them. This would eliminate the pressure on merchants and customers, and provide a cost-effective way for many (not all) of the homeless to be able to defecated legally and cleanly. It’s a solution that has historic precedents, too, in public baths and latrines. Why are we not doing this, is the question, and shows that the real problem is in our approach to the problem.
Here are some ideas for approaches to treatment of the various problems of the homeless. But there are crossover persons, with, for example, drug and mental problems, mentally ill “homeless by choice”, and so on. These approaches won’t take all the homeless off the street, but might offer some modest successes.
1. Hobo: These folks often have bank accounts, and can manage their personal hygene quite well. What’s needed is social approval: identification of them as
“urban campers”, some rules for such camping, places for urban camping, and some outreach services (no-fee ATM, for example, and bank outreach, food supplies, cooking gear, etc., everything needed by the urban camper). Police often needlessly cite or even jail urban campers; one Veterans Administration (“VA”) outpatient who camped by a local river was hounded by police even though he cleaned up after himself and took a shower every day. ID cards and police policy changes could eliminate this “problem”.
2. Drugs: The hardest to deal with, those with the least to lose, and the most obnoxious. Let’s put this aside for now, and think of calling for either harsh penalties or else free medications. It would be cheaper than the loss of business. One plan is to offer a “heroin hotel”, where certified drug addicts could imbibe under supervision, with the provisio that they could not leave until sober. Another, more humorous, plan would be to “salt” abandoned buildings with VCR, TV, etc., allowing them to be burglarized; the next day, buy them back in government pawnshops, then to be re-seeded for the next night. The “war on drugs” is one of those made-up cavalry charges that go up the wrong canyon at the wrong time in the wrong direction, and then wonder what went wrong.
3. Mentally ill: Many of the outpatient mentally ill are there because they don’t get outpatient care, either because they have to travel a long distance, wait a long time, or lost their medications. These are the easiest to deal with via a modern outreach program. ID cards and trained, backed-up personnel can table at places where these sort of homeless congregate. These outpatients would be able to get their medications, call for help, and find assistance with medical services, money-management, and other paperwork. For example, those who have social security can apply for disability payments, and those payments can be banked for daily distribution, if the apparatus were established. This would be a cost-effective and very visible way of making good on the promise of outpatient treatment, which too often in practice just means abandonment and a loss of any “safety net” of social support.
4. Economic displacement. Those made homeless by high rents and low wages would benefit from sub-marginal housing (for example, some cottages were to be torn down in Long Beach California; instead, they were sold on easy terms to the economically-displaced homeless; pretty soon, they were patched up, flowers planted, etc., with pride of ownership saving dozens from the ranks of the homeless). With these displaced persons, we have the advantage that they are willing to work, but can’t make enough to pay the rent let alone pay for health care. Childcare programs would be successful if directed at this segment, plus intern programs and work-outreach, city-make-work, and other ways to bring low-cost systemic resources to bear.
Regen house, which is a community of people living light on the land, was established in accordance with the Regenerative principles established by the late Prof. John T. Lyle of Cal Poly Pomona. One such home is http://regen.org where it is possible to live a meaningful life in a community of students, workers, intellectuals, etc., for a total cost (including food) of less then $600/month. Chores are shared, they grow much of their own food in an inner-city environment, they use solar power and drive Electric cars. Transport, studying, problems, etc., are shared, and they are involved in community service. This would be a way for the economically displaced to live within their means, there are a lot of old houses in the inner city and such “regen houses” just need to be set up.
Obviously, class 2 (drugs) and class 3 (mentally ill) of the homeless would not be candidates for solution 4 (Regen house); so the remedies only have a chance of application if they are limited to those for which they are designed.
Some of the homeless are going to continue to live on the street, and society should figure out ways to reduce this number, and make things as good as possible for those in the very hard core homeless while at the same time making re-entry into the social “game” more likely for those only marginally successful at it.