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Is There a Right to be Homeless?

For ten years, the author has been working with homeless people. She thinks that current advocacy is taking a seriously wrong turn.

by Vivian Rothstein

Last Spring, a Federal District Court ordered the city of Miami to provide designated outdoor "safe zones" in which homeless people could live. Many civil libertarians celebrated the decision as a great victory. As someone who has struggled to help homeless people in my community regain control over their lives, I see the court's decision as a crushing defeat for human rights.

For the past ten years I have worked on the homeless issue, first as a local government staff member, now as the director of a social service agency which runs a network of emergency shelters and services for homeless adults and families. All our programs are located in Santa Monica, California. The city government helps fund a wide range of homeless services while it struggles politically with local opposition to the increasing presence of homeless people in the community.

In the early and mid-1980s, the work of homeless advocacy was to identify and argue for the services needed to help individuals lift themselves out of desperation. But providing services wasn't enough. We also had to explain that the explosion of homelessness was not simply a result of the personal failure of the poor, that it had structural causes -- welfare and job cutbacks, reductions in federal support of affordable housing production, lack of community facilities for the chronically mentally ill, etc.

With the increase in homelessness over the last decade, services couldn't keep pace with the demand, and more people began living on the streets for much longer periods of time. The result has been a shift in focus for most homeless advocacy -- to defending the right of homeless people to exist and survive in the public areas of our cities.

It is time for those of us in this field to question the new directions of our advocacy. These are painful and complex issues, which demand that we reflect on our expectations for a decent society, our conception of individual empowerment, and our vision of political possibilities. My hope is that, through honest discussion, service providers and legal rights advocates -- and progressives in general -- can develop a shared vision of the social policy we wish to promote.

* * *

"Dear God i am writing to you because your child Denise said that she wrote you and you answered her prayer. . . . What i really want to ask is i want you to give me a job and i know you can do it and i know you can take away any doubt that whatever happens, it's for the better. Thank you for the neat job you gave me.
Your friend. C."
-- A letter returned to Turning Point Shelter for insufficient postage

Most Americans, homeless or housed, want jobs to support themselves and hope to contribute to the common good. No matter how disabled, inexperienced, ill, or disoriented, most of us want to be participating members of society. Yet legal advocacy for homeless people is increasingly focused on fighting for their right to live marginalized lives in public places.

For years, the left and the right have been arguing about whether homelessness is a result of economic and social forces or personal behavior and unhealthy life choices. Both views are incomplete. To assert that homelessness is caused only by social conditions is to disempower individuals; to say it's all a result of personal failings is to absolve our society of any responsibility for fairness or justice.

I am acutely aware of the structural roadblocks which make it hard for people to move out of homelessness and back into a stable life -- for example, the dire shortage of affordable housing, the loss of jobs paying decent wages, the shortage of affordable health and child care. But I also know that individuals can take charge of their lives, despite the current economy. Some of the most disabled clients we work with have progressed from the desperation of long-term homelessness into the stability of living in their own apartments after working strenuously to break their own personal cycles of homelessness.

How do "safe zones" and outdoor encampments help to break the cycle of homelessness? They don't. Rather, they institutionalize homelessness by permitting large numbers of people to live in officially sanctioned sub-standard conditions in the midst of our cities. Ultimately, this helps neither homeless people nor society at large.

Moreover, the legal defense of peoples' ability to remain poor and homeless in our public spaces undermines the notion of a social welfare system by accepting homelessness as a permanent part of the landscape of American urban life. It doesn't address either the structural or personal causes of homelessness. Instead it falsely suggests to homeless people that their homeless status is acceptable and defensible for themselves as individuals and for society as a whole; and it leaves local communities with a growing clash between their housed (voting) and unhoused (largely non-voting) populations.

* * *

". . . remember, for those who feel worthless, hopeless and filled with shame, they need a little road to walk on, a little place to stand. Thank you Daybreak, for giving me some foundation to build on and steps to a bright and wonderful future. I believe in myself again."
-- L.C., former resident of Santa Monica's Daybreak shelter for homeless, mentally ill women

Anyone who has been through a life crisis knows that being pitied or patronized only strengthens the feeling that our problems can't be overcome. The alternative is to be challenged in our sense of victimization and urged to see the part we played in creating our own problems -- how we may have set ourselves up for the circumstances.

The role of a progressive social service provider in working with people in distress is to believe in their worth and dignity -- despite their present circumstances -- and to expect (and encourage) them to live up to their highest goals. Since we all know that homelessness is not a healthy choice and would not feel comfortable if someone we loved settled for that condition, it's crucial to reinforce people's belief in the importance of getting off the streets, and their confidence that it can be done. To expect less for homeless people is to give up on them, to contribute to their own sense of hopelessness, and to participate in their abandonment by the rest of society.

A dedicated counselor will help a person to develop a plan for seeking income, housing, mental and physical health care and to negotiate relationships with the rest of society -- landlords, caseworkers, clinics. An advocate will husband the resources of the entire community -- religious congregations, volunteers, and local businesses -- to help one individual succeed in moving off the streets. Most important, the counselor will help the person understand the choices available to improve his or her life.

The role of a legal supporter is often quite different. Litigation treats homeless people as a class. Moreover, it operates in the courtroom -- a combative and confrontational terrain, with victors and vanquished. The strategy is to accentuate differences between the sides in order to win for a client. Increasingly, however, the combatants are homeless people and the local community in which they live. Emphasizing their conflicts may feel like success to a legal rights advocate, but it is a dead end for homeless individuals who must live within and amongst housed members of the community.

At this point, homeless people depend on local services, usually provided through charitable organizations which rely on community donations and good will to survive. It's fairly painless for a federal judge to pass a ruling requiring outdoor "safe zones," leaving responsibility for homelessness to the city, the level of government with the fewest resources to respond.

Recent court decisions validating the constitutional rights of homeless people to be present in public areas, combined with continued drastic cuts in social services and income supports, are leaving city governments with no resources either to provide services or to limit the presence of homeless people within their boundaries. The two trends are on a collision course, with no constructive alternative in sight.

* * *

"God Loves You Even if Everyone Else Thinks You're an Idiot"
-- Bumpersticker on a homeless man's shopping cart

In the Jewish tradition, all members of the community are expected to participate in service and charity to benefit needy members of the society. The tradition acknowledges that there are different levels of charity, and that some are much more valuable than others. Maimonides' Ladder of Giving symbolizes these levels of charity. When the giver and receiver are known to each other, the charity is near the bottom rung. On a higher rung, the giver knows who gets the help but the receiver gets it anonymously. Higher still is when the giver and receiver don't know one another's names or circumstances. At the top of the ladder is assistance which helps the person become self sufficient and take care of herself, without identifying giver or beneficiary.

The anti-poverty movements of the 1960s and '70s demanded reforms such as tax-funded community economic development, job training, and government loans for higher education. These programs sit at the highest rungs of Maimonides' ladder. Giving change to a panhandler, placing a hot dish of food in the hands of a hungry person, passing out dollar bills in a city park, are much lower down. They are still worth doing, but they maintain the powerlessness of the recipient, even though the giver feels magnanimous.

During the Reagan/Bush regimes, American society slid off the ladder altogether. Government services were slashed to reduce our (anonymous) giving through taxes, admonitions to perform acts of community charity were weakened, and we began to see dishevelled and hungry people outside our shopping centers. The only services available were voluntarily (and spottily) initiated by religious congregations and/or community based non-profits.

After 12 years of Republican leadership, these organizations (originally designed to help people who "fell between the cracks" and to advocate for individuals who were due benefits from government programs) now frequently provide the only services available to people with very low or no incomes. The day-to-day efforts of these agencies -- and their survival -- depend on the local community.

A homeless service provider must exist in a community of support in order to enlist volunteer help, donations of food, clothing and other goods, and to raise the funds needed to keep programs operating. Dedicated community members work on boards of directors and help to staff programs; donations of in-kind services and material help keep expenses down. Confrontation between housed and unhoused people, combined with hopelessness and futility in effectively addressing the homeless crisis, undermine the community good will on which local service providers must depend.

* * *

A recent Santa Monica ordinance would have required permits for outdoor meals programs which serve more than 35 people per site. Critics attacked the ordinance on First Amendment grounds, arguing that it abridged the freedom of expression involved in feeding large numbers of people outdoors without regulation. (Indoor sites for these volunteer-run meals were available free of charge.)

But is serving food outdoors really the best way to provide meals to the poor? Shouldn't we ask volunteer charitable activities to provide services in a humane, healthy, and dignified setting with access to tables, chairs, and toilets? Is it a helpful message to homeless people that they don't have to come indoors to receive assistance? Or

was the issue really -- as the freedom-of-expression argument strongly suggests -- the desire of the food providers to have their charity performed in public, where it could be seen?

In challenging a law limiting the size of outdoor meals programs, the legal defenders of the homeless were led by their ideology rather than the long-term needs of homeless people. They also overlooked the real need of homeless services to co-exist respectfully with other members of the local community.

Progressives have always been critical of old-fashioned charities which accepted that "the poor will always be with us." We have argued that quality housing, full employment, and a meaningful work life are the entitlements of each American. In the late 1960s, we felt that charitable giveaways were not an adequate response to poverty -- that services needed to reinforce a person's sense of self-worth and help in moving on to a more satisfying life.

Think of the parallel between meals programs and minimum wage laws. There is a serious problem of unemployment in this country, but progressives would not want to eliminate the minimum wage in order to produce jobs. We have struggled to establish a bottom line of dignity and subsistence in return for a day's work and do not wish to retreat from that standard.

In the same way, we need now to struggle to establish a bottom line of subsistence and dignity for low income (and no income) Americans, rather than to move forward to establish public encampments and displaced persons camps in the parks and public areas of our nation.

* * *

"Chester" is an extremely personable, bright, homeless man in his 30s with a sharp political analysis of capitalism and the economic causes of homelessness and poverty. He attends the local community college off and on. I was once a guest on his monthly public access television show where we discussed the proposed ordinance to limit the size of outdoor meal programs. (He raises the $35 fee for taping each show by panhandling at the local mall.) We meet occasionally to discuss city politics, and police and local government policies. Chester has been homeless for about eight years, although he recently moved in with a friend.

Each time we meet I leave feeling that I have copped out on Chester. He should get himself off the street permanently. But I don't confront him with that as a real friend would. Chester has managed to survive, homeless, for so long that he probably won't come indoors unless he's forced. I am upset that he's settled for a life of long-term homelessness -- he is a man with such potential. And I am annoyed that Chester has chosen to live on the edge of society in a manner that makes someone like me (with a place to sleep indoors) feel guilty for my relative affluence.

Hundreds of Chesters are now on the street. They have figured out how to live without homes and tap into the few resources that are available to those on society's margins. No matter how dramatically we change federal, state, and local policies to create affordable housing and jobs, they are unlikely to come in from the cold voluntarily. Given the traumatic impact of homelessness on a person's sense of self, people who are left homeless for so long are almost certain to lose interest in participating (and often their ability to participate) in the mainstream of our society.

Homelessness for Chester began, I'm sure, like anyone else's -- with a crisis brought on by the loss of a job, housing, or a significant relationship, or due to substance abuse or health problems. And as people adapt to their conditions in order to survive, Chester has adapted to his homelessness and has made his own peace with it. The Chesters represent a small portion of the homeless population, but their existence challenges us to figure out what we really believe about their life choices and about our social contract.

I feel tremendously torn about the Chesters -- I respect their intelligence and courage, but deplore the fact that they cling to a degrading lifestyle. When speaking before the Chamber of Commerce I even deny that they exist. But that is dishonest.

I am upset when they take advantage of the few services -- emergency food, clothing, shelter, and showers -- that are available to homeless people and use those services simply to maintain their homeless status quo. When they become spokespeople for the homeless, I know they don't represent most homeless people who, once they have gotten off the street, don't even want to remember or tell others that they ever sank so low. I don't think it is fair when Chesters use our local parks -- drinking, using drugs, and generally making our city's resident renters frightened in the only open space available to them. I don't mind paying taxes so that Americans on the margin can subsist and survive. But I don't want their lifestyles to deprive others of the right to live out theirs.

* * *

"I know that Mary used to alternate her contributions to Daybreak [day center for homeless women] and to a women's shelter in downtown LA. Due to a layoff and her inability to get a job (she is 58 and overweight), she ran out of money several months ago. I could no longer afford to carry her, so she is now homeless. Please remove her from your mailing list." A.G.L.
-- Scribbled next to the address label from our latest agency newsletter and mailed back in the dead of winter from Hazelwood, Missouri

It is painful to work for homeless people. In bed at night when it starts to rain, you worry that the county hasn't opened the emergency bad-weather shelters. Raising funds for programs, you share the success stories of lives transformed -- knowing that they represent only a fraction of the homeless people served. Approached for change at the market you look like just another indifferent middle class shopper. In running services, you sometimes wonder if you are simply "enabling" people to stay on the street. You become part of the poverty establishment and know that your salary depends on the pain of the dispossessed. And -- worst of all -- despite all your efforts and your good ideas, people are out there longer and longer; many are sicker and sicker; nothing seems to be getting better.

For over a decade, thousands of us have fought the dismantling of the social welfare system -- after having earlier helped create it in the anti-poverty activism of the '60s and '70s. Protesting service cuts, arguing for needed programs for the homeless, advocating for public funding and community acceptance -- these have all been righteous and important efforts. Homeless advocates united behind a single purpose in these struggles.

Now, with the focus shifting to a defense of peoples' right to live in degraded conditions in public parks and commercial districts, I find myself at odds with old allies. I am firmly against criminalizing homelessness and persecuting individuals solely because of their poverty. But I also believe that people need standards and limits on acceptable behavior, regardless of their economic status.

All people need structure and accountability in their lives. None of us can maintain our integrity and morality without pressure from our community. To exempt homeless people from healthy standards of living and socially useful modes of operating is to expect less from them as human beings than we expect of ourselves. That is ultimately disempowering, dishonest, and socially destructive.

* * *

I don't know what the "right" position is on these matters. But I know what feels wrong. The Talmud says if you save one man, you've saved the world. It could also be said that if you give up on one person, you have given up on the world. But that is what we will be doing if we decide that the right to remain poor and degraded in public areas is a step toward resolving the national homeless crisis.

Click here for a readers' forum on Vivian Rothstein's "Is there a Right to Be Homeless?"

Originally published in the December 1993/ January 1994 issue of Boston Review



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