going up the river: part 2

If we do “go up the river” to find explanations of why so many people are experiencing homelessness, we find different ways of looking at it. One way is the “common sense” notion there is something wrong with the individuals who don’t have a home. It might be mental illness, substance abuse, lack of education or training, lack of interpersonal skills, family alienation, chronic lateness, inability or unwillingness to follow directions, etc. And if homelessness is caused by the deficiencies of the people experiencing it, the solution is obvious. Either fix them or punish them.

“Fixers” advocate programs that treat mental illness and addiction, provide job training and education, teach interpersonal skills, and so on. The underlying idea is that once individual problems are fixed, homelessness will fix itself – they will get a job, rent an apartment, become solid citizens, etc. And once enough individuals are fixed, the problem of homelessness will go away, or at least be a lot less pressing. We won’t be stepping over people sleeping in the street.

Oddly enough, the “punishers” share the opinion that homelessness is caused by deficiencies of those experiencing it, but they blame these deficiencies on the homeless persons themselves. It’s their own fault, the thinking goes, so why should we help them? Maybe if we make their lives even more miserable, they will quit bothering good taxpaying citizens like us and go somewhere else.
Their solution is to turn the problem over to the police, insisting the cops enforce our ordinances that make it illegal to sleep on public property. Since it’s already illegal to even go on private property, criminalizing sleeping on public property looks like a good idea. “Those people” must sleep somewhere, and since every place they can sleep is illegal ,  well, they will just have to go to some other city, making it somebody else’s problem!
From my point of view, it is not hard to see that punishing those experiencing homeless, besides being ethically and morally questionable, doesn’t even try to solve the problem. But more to the point, it is very, very difficult in a democracy to make the lives of unsheltered people worse than they already are. After all, the only tool the police have is arrest, and as unpleasant as being locked up in the Galveston County jail might be, you do get meals and a roof over your head, things that you don’t get living on the streets. An arrest just starts a revolving door of incarceration, release to the streets, further arrests, – rinse and repeat. The sad thing is that it makes the problem worse. If it’s hard for a person to get a job, it’s lot harder with a criminal record.

But the “fix them” approach hasn’t solved the problem either. Don’t get me wrong – attempts to deal with the evils associated with homelessness by helping the individuals affected are not just good things, they are necessary. They are the real-world equivalent of the frantic efforts of our imaginary townsfolk trying to save the babies drowning in the river, the allegory we looked at last week.  In the real world, people who can’t get a job, or worse, are unable to work at all, need help. Those who suffer from ill health, whether physical or mental, need access to treatment. Addiction to substances, whether crystal meth, alcohol or opiates, causes immense human suffering. A program like Central’s new substance use disorder treatment clinic on Tuesdays is literally a godsend.  
A godsend, yes, necessary, but not enough. Just as the number of babies floating down the river kept increasing despite the efforts of the good people in that city by the river, the number of Galveston’s unsheltered is increasing, despite all our efforts.

Pastor Michael in a recent sermon quoted Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” The mindset that sees the personal deficiencies of the unsheltered as the cause of their misery is one way of looking at it, but it clearly has not led to a solution. Maybe we need entirely different ways of looking.

Next time we will look at some possibilities for the different mindset that we so badly need.