Two critical questions—how do people actually fall into homelessness, and what can be done to remedy the underlying causes of homelessness—illuminate the complexity of the problem. The wide range of answers reveals the need for the wide range of remedies and rehabilitation required to create solutions. (Image CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Many people, perhaps most of us, view homeless people as the refuse of society, people to be avoided or even shunned rather than helped. 

They tend to be viewed as addicts or criminals waiting to prey on the unsuspecting, naïve or vulnerable. We don’t want them in our neighborhoods. As a group, they are all smeared with the same brush. But as anyone who has taken the slightest interest in them knows, there are many routes into this predicament which do not fit the stereotype.

We tend to divide the poor into the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. Children fall into the deserving category, regardless of their family’s financial situation. Those with almost all serious illnesses fall into the deserving category if their distress is not caused by their own actions or decisions. 

The homeless and those with unstable housing tend to fall into the undeserving category. The one exception I can think of is abused women fleeing violent relationships. Our attitudes mirror 17th and 18th century English mores which were imported with the early English colonists.

Those with severe mental illnesses tend to fall into a grey zone between those two categories. Our response tends to be ambivalent, ranging from anxious avoidance to a desire to help. Efforts to help the mentally ill suffer from this ambivalence. Our two state hospitals and our community mental health centers are chronically underfunded. These programs are further burdened by high staff turnover and staff shortages. The result is that many seriously mentally ill never receive any effective treatment or management of their illness.

What can be done?

How do people become homeless and what can be done to remedy the underlying causes of homelessness?

Among the homeless are many current or former criminals and addicts. However, most of the homeless I have met do not fit neatly into either of those categories. 

For instance, I met a carpenter who had been employed until he fractured his femur when he fell through a rotten floorboard. He had no medical insurance (this was prior to the Affordable Care Act) and his employer did not provide medical leave. His disability benefits ran out before he could return to work. He began living in his pickup and surviving by panhandling. Because he parked his truck for hours each day while he panhandled, his truck with all his carpentry tools was eventually impounded. Without the money to get his truck back, he lost his shelter, his transportation and his livelihood, and was sleeping in the doorway of a church. 

The point of his story is that becoming homeless in not an event but a downward spiral. Far too many Americans live on the cusp of that spiral.

There are many causes leading to this downward spiral into insecure housing and homelessness.

  • Substance abuse has been a major contributor but it usually gets out of control only after other failures and stressors become overwhelming.
  • The lack of health coverage in many states and inadequate medical coverage through Medicaid contribute to those slipping downward.
  • A lack of affordable child care has hobbled many poor young families and single mothers. 
  • Chronic racial discrimination has kept a large share of the American population poor and unable to accumulate even modest wealth.
  • Those leaving prison often have difficulty obtaining housing and legal work to support themselves.
  • Youth who end up on the streets tend to be fleeing chronically dysfunctional families.
  • Escalating housing costs have pushed many over the edge.

The U.S. has the highest rate of homelessness of any developed country. Is it embedded in our national myth of “rugged individualism,” an expectation that we would all do well if only we applied ourselves? Is it our focus on minimizing taxes by protecting tax breaks, saving billions for homeowners, the wealthy and corporations, among others? We are happy to save on taxes but chafe at spending much on the “undeserving.” Politicians rail against any proposed “entitlement” but few complain about the entitlements (tax deductions) that benefit the middle class and wealthy. (Full disclosure: I also benefit from these “entitlements.”)

I think we should look to our neighbors across the Atlantic who have taken a different approach and do not suffer the same consequences. The have invested heavily in social safety nets that help their citizens avoid falling into that downward spiral. They have their own problems with homelessness but rampant homelessness is not one of them. 

I think as a society we need to make a choice: Do we tax ourselves enough to fund effective safety nets or do we accept homeless people in our communities and neighborhoods, despite the petty (and sometimes not so petty) crimes they commit to sustain themselves. We can’t avoid this choice. But either way it will be a heavy lift.

— Contributed by John Dunne

[Read more on homelessness and efforts to address the problem, in Salish Current.]

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