Fifty years ago the Declaration of Human Rights inserted an addition; “Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Yet fifty years later, despite remarkable improvements in the efforts to end homelessness, more people than ever are without safe or adequate shelter in the United States.
Exactly how many men, women and children are homeless right this moment in the US? Approximately 3 million people are sleeping on streets, in abandoned buildings, and in emergency shelters and 1.5 million of those are minors. Compare those figures to the entire continent of Europe, where all fifty countries cumulatively have 2.5 million homeless; less than our one country. Our neighbor, Canada, only has a grand total of 200,000 homeless people. The entire continent of Australia has 105,000 homeless. Why it is that other United Nations member states have been able to better live up to the Declaration of Human Rights we collectively agreed to so long ago and our own country has struggled and lagged behind, is what I seek to answer.
According to a report by Scott Leckie, from Displacement Solutions, “…in all countries homelessness starts with poverty and unemployment (or underemployment); a group unable to acquire property”. He asserts these Have-Nothings do not have the political power of those who do own property. Property owners vote into the government those leaders who best support their own land grab interests.
Think about how this works in the United States, where the American dream is to own a home that increases indefinitely in value; and when that doesn’t happen we vote out our leaders. The way our capitalist republic is set –up we must support this or our economy collapses. In my search to understand the homeless problem in America I have moved away from advocating for a new economic model as a solution. I do advocate an intentional social revolution; an overthrow of an antiquated American value system that has failed in favor of a new American value system that seeks to reinterpret “liberty and justice for all”, as well as embrace the Declaration of Human Rights, while working in junction with the current economic establishment.
So how do we encourage a revolution without disturbing the prosperity of land-owners? I advocate we first continue to find ways to incentivize land-owners to participate in the creation of adequate housing and opportunities for the poorest of our nation. Government is absolutely essential in this process to improve housing opportunities because as Scott Leckie has pointed out, “…a private-sector, market based approach has proven to be a system which does not work to end homelessness.” That is not to say our government has ignored the poorest of our population but the leaders who comprise our government have also responded to the pressures of their voters. While incentives to help provide prosperity opportunities and housing have been instituted, I assert they have fallen too short to stop the increasing tide of division between the Haves and Have-Nothings because the Haves who vote simply do not value the problem enough to make our leaders prioritize it. This is a systemic problem, not the fault of voters or their leaders; but it is due to the issues of our subtle American cultural values that judge, and then punishes some and rewards some at the expense of others. This value system, coupled with an economy that depends upon the best interest of property-owners, does not increase political pressure for our leaders to improve anti-poverty policies.
One example, out of very many examples, of how this punishment and rewards system functions is the societal perception that individuals are defined by singular events. Mostly, American society focuses on labels attached to events, like job titles or criminal records. Obviously, a student is a desirable label and a felon is not. If a young male student goes through a troubled phase and commits a crime society tends to label him indefinitely as a criminal. After serving his sentence, going through treatments and attempting to turn his life around, he finds almost every door shut to him and he cannot access the jobs, housing or degrees required to become a prosperous and good citizen. Instead he is left homeless and looked down upon not only for his record but also judged for accepting food help or for begging; voters and their leaders rail against him and claim he is lazy and say his demographic is draining society. New laws are enacted in localities making it criminal to panhandle, or to sleep in public, or to feed the homeless, because the voters perceive that a crack-down is needed against these “criminals”. The young man is arrested for sleeping in an abandoned warehouse one winter night and when the police find a knife on him, his only protection in a vulnerable situation, he is now charged with Possession of a Deadly Weapon. By the time he serves his second sentence and makes his way to housing programs for the homeless, property-owners, colleges and employers will deny his applications.
Over the next few months I will attempt to break down yet more examples of how current societal norms and mores perpetuate poverty in America. My goal is to persuade you that the current approach of voting for or against feeding the hungry, criminalizing homelessness or subsidized housing will not protect our country from the consequences of impoverishing a young man, nor will it elevate you above those consequences because you earned the label of “liberal”, “conservative”, “Christian” or “do-gooder”. If we as a society take care of our poor we are merely cleaning up after ourselves the mess we collectively created and then we are creating the mess again and cleaning it again. Although addressing the immediate needs of the 3 million Americans walking through the turnstile of homelessness is a good first step in the right direction, as Spiritual Leader Kerekin Yarian wrote, “…until we collectively stop attributing moral culpability to the poorest for their own impoverishment, and we start accepting moral culpability for our own privileges and the damage it causes…”, we will never end homelessness or poverty.
To advocate for us to put political pressure on our leaders to create better anti-poverty policies is to put the cart before the horse until we, as a society, understand how or why we pressure our leaders to perpetuate policies that merely address the symptoms of poverty. For now, finding ways to incentivize the Haves to participate in their communities to end poverty and homelessness, with the government as a facilitator, is the best first step. Meanwhile, I propose it is more important to find ways to initiate the momentum of a cultural shift in America. Until more public figures, artists, educators, youth, writers, performers, and spiritual leaders all begin to inform society and then model and lead society towards a new value system, we will not empower or pressure through our votes our policy makers to end homelessness.
In my next article I will suggest a few ways that we may incentivize property-owners to participate inclusively, instead of exclusively, in the work of providing adequate housing specifically for the demographic who needs it the most. Also, I will be talking about ways to make this work economically beneficial to all members of society and not only the Haves or the privileged. According to Scott Leckie, “Most success stories are small scale, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, but they get replicated in other places once people find out about them.” It is time we find out and it is time we succeed.