Saturday, March 31, 2007

What fresh hell is this?

It's rare for me to deal with the issue of homelessness. For one thing, there are too many people with far more knowledge and experience who can address it with more authority.

Jen, as an example, wrote a post in the weesmas about the final night at a cold weather shelter that is closing for the season. Obviously I pay attention to what she says. She has the bonafides, has done her time in the trenches and knows more in ten minutes than I will in a lifetime.

At the same time, we come from different approaches. Her educational background is in psychology. Mine is sociology. I read what she says and my head automatically looks at it from a very broad perspective, the perspective of one who has studied societies.

That will automatically cause us to view the same thing through a different lens, even though we share the same visceral reaction.

I don't have practical solutions. I don't understand the labyrinth of social service agencies and government programs. While I have a yeoman's understanding, the actual mechanics of getting something done is completely beyond me.

I'd like to give a picture of this problem through my lens. Just something else to consider.

Western societies hold the functionalist view. Homelessness is part of the natural order of social organization. There will always be those who have more than others and that hierarchy defines natural order.

Lenin wrote a lot about this view of society in his book The ABCs of Historical and Dialectical Materialism. I don't agree with his conclusions but he did write a decent analysis of it.

American culture, given its Puritan underpinnings, specifically holds the judgemental view that only "bad" Americans become homeless because they are lazy, drug-addicted or careless about their own lives. That gives permission to ignore them, to pretend there is no obligation to do anything about it. At the root of the belief is that most people, given the choice, would sit back and do nothing, stop working and let the government support them. The homeless are effectively used as a social scare tactic.

There is also an element of the conflict theory. The basis of that theory is that social order is determined by power and coercion. The only way to change our social status is by power struggle through competition.

This view holds that the homeless are simply too weak to climb the ladder.

The third view is called symbolic interaction. This theory holds that individuals give meaning to social behavior and that creates society. The society as a whole is created by the collective of individual beliefs. It is more subjective than the other two. Social status is demonstrated through symbols. Status symbols. The society determines what those status symbols might be. As an example, being fat used to be a status symbol. It meant you had enough to eat.

The relationship between the individual and society is that the individual and society are both interdependent. This perspective views the homeless through symbols. These symbols can be anything. The clothes they wear, the way they act and the foods they eat.

This view, in my opinion, combined with the other two creates a real problem for the homeless in this particular society.

If we believe they are a part of the natural order, we need them to remain homeless to reinforce that view.

If we believe they are simply weak, then they become disposable. We can relegate them to non-personhood.

If we believe they are a symbol, what is that symbol?

That is the root question, in my opinion.

I am interested ~ as always ~ in hearing your thoughts and opinions.




jen said...

your brain works in freakishly intelligent ways, Chani. thank you for this post.

i think we are taught that if you work hard enough you can get what you want. if you don't, you won't, and it's your fault. there isn't a lot of sympathy in between. sadly, "success" means production and consumption, so we are all essentially lambs to the corporate slaughter, and the have nots are stigmatized even remind us we don't want to become like them.

I don't know if this is answering your question, but it's what i thought when i read it.

ps. go see Atavist when you have a chance. he's on to something.

Thailand Gal said...

Thanks. :) I'm often surprised that I can manage to fire up two neurons at the same time.

Aging can be a bitch. (g)

I think we are saying, again, essentially the same thing. This culture uses the homeless as a scare tactic and to reinforce the puritan work ethic. It benefits corporations to have the population terrified.

That's a powerful symbol.

I've been to Atavist's site. I'll think about what he had to say during my walk.



caro said...

I can't add anything more. We are on the same page on this. I've been to Atavist's site and am thinking about what I can do to contribute...

Gobody said...

I think homelessness is most probably a result of a society that does not accommodate for all the varying aspects of its members. The high demands of the society to be a successful member in it cannot be met by everyone. And the society does not recognize skills that fall outside the pragmatic and the functional. People who can be sweet and kind are not appreciated because they are not competitive. I believe that there could be a way to find the natural position for everyone inside a society. I don't know how but some one else might know.

Isn't it surprising the the richest nation on earth suffers from a problem than many "less" rich nations don't have at all?

meno said...

I don't know the answer to this, but is there homelessness in those countries where everyone is assured a basic income through welfare? What about mentally ill people?

I certainly agree that this culture (the US) far too often views homelessness as a weakness, your fault, bootstraps and all that. I would wish that more people read the true stories of the homeless to see that they are us.

Laurie said...

This is too difficult for my little sleep deprived brain to contemplate right now, but I do want to say how much I appreciate your post(s). You always fight the good fight, Chani, and it's commendable.

I loved Jen's comment...your brain works in freakishly intelligent ways. I agree!

Julie Pippert said...

You've hit the nail on the head for me. This is a Puritanically-based, every many for himself (to some defree) pull yourself up by your bootstraps (if not, your bad <--not a typo, play on the "Oooh my bad") manner of reviewing it.

It's incorporating the morality play into life.

The homeless man is the symbol of all bad that can befall you if you stary outside the lines.


Bottom line is that it is a distancing and dehumanizing. Many need this. They are uncomfortable wiht the thought, "There but for grace go I."

And we're back to That naughty little Secret, yes? ;)

Pam said...

People would be surprised if they knew how many formerly hard working, "successful" people were in the breadline.

I don't know if that knowledge would change the popular perception of our homeless, but it's food for thought. It really isn't that unusual for people to loose everything, it can happen seemingly overnight.

Suzy said...

To add to what Pam says ... Particularly because our health care is so (choose one) 1) unaffordable or 2) non-existent.

What is the adage? Most people are but a paycheck away from homelessness? That's me, definitely, except that I have health insurance, a good union, etc. But my family lives from paycheck to paycheck. We have no cushion.

I agree with Jen too, about production, consumption, and being lambs to the corporate slaughter.

Thanks for this one. And it does my heart good that readers respond with such compassion.

The Atavist said...

Chani: You raise the greatest questions. I am going to address, specifically, Meno's question about whether there is homelessness if there are sufficient layers of welfare available. I haven't been everywhere in the world, but I have been in the 'great' welfare countries of Canada, Germany, and France, in particular. Yes, there is homelessness. Some people prefer not to let the system help them. It is as simple as that. They chafe under the regulations and demands imposed on them (usually very reasonable things like don't smoke in bed, don't kill the guy in the bed next to you) and would rather be 'free' than warm. This is grossly oversimplified, of course, but it is part of the problem from what I have seen and read in my travels. You can make all sorts of facilities available, but you can't force people to participate. I would be interested to see if Jen has encountered examples of this in her job. Also, I imagine, some people are simply too proud to accept help.

Thailand Gal said...

Caro, it will be interesting to see how that project unfolds. :)


Gobody, this isn't the richest nation on earth. Other than that, I agree with you completely. This isn't a culture that acknowledges or represents all different types of people. That is unfortunate in so many ways. Who's to say an artist isn't just important to cultural health as entrepreneurs?


Meno, I think Atavist is right. There are homeless people in other countries ~ even Thailand ~ for the very reasons he cited. Some people DO choose it. The difference is that it is not institutionalized into the culture.

Much of this started, if I recall correctly, when Reagan chose to cut back so drastically on all social services, including mental health services.


Laurie, thanks. :) I try.


Julie, exactly. It is a population that is marginalized intentionally to show the price we pay for stepping outside the good consumer/good citizen model.

All societies have methods of social control through propaganda or something else. Somehow none seems so cruel as allowing people to live on the streets like soi dogs.

Yes.. back to the nasty little Secret. :)


Pam, it can happen a bit too easily. You know, there are social services. No doubt about that. I know it personally since I was able to get disability insurance. The point is though that I had health insurance through a job so that I was able to see doctors to *get* the disability payments.

For the "working poor", it's an entirely different situation.


Suzy, if my SSDI stopped, I would have no way of supporting myself, either. And I have no family support. Believe me, most of us who don't live the American ideal, it is painfully evident.


Atavist, yes... but those are, as you acknowledge, the minority of the homeless population.

Some of us grew up with the romantic notion of the hobo, the guy who goes off on his own, lives in the mountains, is entirely self-sufficient and so on. That is a valid choice, imo.

My concern is for those who don't choose it. :)




Lucia said...

My first response was that I don't agree with any of these three theories. But, the great thing about this post was that it slowed me down, helped me think it through.

I would like to believe that it's possible to provide for all, or at least all who choose to partake. But then I thought about the question of symbol. One of the symbols, I think, is that if I don't work hard enough, maker the right choices, etc. there go I.

The only way this symbol is viable is because we've adopted this framework where we can change things if we work hard enough, vision enough, etc. For me, the reality of the symbol (there go I) is that we do not have control over everything, and that indeed, it could be me. If we all believed it could be us, would there be a higher, better level of services for the homeless?

Thailand Gal said...

Lucia, in many ways, we're saying the same thing. The symbol of the "bad American" (one who doesn't buy into produce/consume, one who chooses other things as a higher value (such as art), those who are of a more quiet, passive or contemplative nature, is used to scare the living daylights out of those who might choose those paths.

It's unfortunate ~ but as you say ~ it will probably have to be approached from Aristotle's "appeal to misery" since there is no sense of community responsibility built into the cultural ethic.



jen said...

i disagree w/ Atavist...i mean, yes, there are folks who do not "want help" under the way it's offered today. Of course. Being homeless doesn't mean you give over your soul to the system and let them make play doh out of it.

I think that is inherently the problem: just because folks are struggling doesn't make them less. it doesn't mean we need to come in and take over and tell them when they can smoke, what time they close their eyes, and how often they can use the bathroom. they still want freedom. we all still want freedom.

if the help offered is actually helpful, providing a balance to the capitalistic smucks who are bent on widening the haves and have nots gap by developing more affordable housing, then i've never not met a guy who won't take advantage of it. problem is there is nowhere close to enough housing.

Housing First is another wave of assistance, and it's got incredible success rates around the country, especially w/ the hardest to serve populations (the guys who "refuse" shelter). this is seeing tremendous success rates.

You are right about Reagan. He cut the legs out from under the mental health population in the 80s and caused desperate situations for many.

Caroline said...

Hi Thailand Gal,

Thank you for this dense and challenging post. I worked with homeless women and children for two years in Cincinnati. I learned several things:

1. Mental illness gone untreated drives people into jobless, homeless states.

2. As Pam said, many homeless people used to be hardworking citizens, but were driven to poverty throught domestic violence or just too many children.

3. The assumption that homeless people are lazy is wrong. The lazy people are those who live on their own private welfare states -- parents paying for tuition, vacations, insurance, dental work, monthly stipends.

deb said...

I don't have any answers, sadly. Last Christmas I volunteered at Hope Mission in downtown Edmonton, took my daughter with me. What surprised me was how ordinary everyone looked. It was all men, mostly young men who reminded me so much of my own son. There were some older men, old drug addicts, old alcoholics, but most were young guys. All polite too, every single guy said thank you when we served them.
There is a booming economy in Alberta right now, which sounds so good but with that boom comes, increased crime, increased family violence, increased addiction and drug problems, and of course increased rent and house prices. Soaring house prices. Our home is worth double what it was worth just two years ago. Which translates to people who can't afford to rent or buy.
So what happens to people with no safely net? No family to help them out? No friends? No social skills to makes friends and find support? They end up on the street it seems.
I've always believed that families are the best safety nets for all of us but I also understand that I was lucky enough to be raised in a home that believed that it is our duty and responsibilty to care for each other, even when we don't agree with each other.
When families fail, there has to be support somewhere. We will, all of us, need support at sometime in our lives, due to illness, disability, aging, whatever. So I guess what we need to try to do is view the world and the people in it, as our larger family and with that family comes the responsibility and duty to help each other out.

deb said...

You made me think this morning, thank you for that.

Thailand Gal said...

Jen, I see your point ~ and, again, I see not accepting help as just as valid a choice as any other.

Fundamentally, I have no problem with the idea of people having to follow some rules. Not ridiculous rules. Not infantilizing rules ~ not rules that suck the soul out of people ~ but giving them a framework is necessary to create harmony for all.

In real life, none of us are free to be completely free. We have to live with others, too.

In this area, we have a group of cottages, literally called The Cottages, which is having some success in getting people off the street and through the maze of social services. For those who can, they take job training. For those who are disabled, they are helped with getting SSDI. It's a rather comprehensive program, two years long, but each person is giving his or her own living space ~ a one room cottage. The program includes community living as each person makes a commitment to help with upkeep, taking care of those who can't take care of themselves, cooking, yard work and so on. Testimonials (minus propaganda stuff) from those who have experienced the program are very positive.

I agree with you about the capitalist smucks. The only logical conclusion is to assume they will not be of any kind of help in any effort that doesn't feather their own nests or sustain their power. The answer is definitely among the private folks who give a shit.

I'd really like to hear more about Housing First!



Thailand Gal said...

Caroline, I agree with you so completely. The real definition of "laziness" can be found next to a picture of people who live off the labor of others. No one can dare to call the working poor "lazy". No one works harder!


Deb, the young male between 21-55 is probably the most highly exploited. Just recently, we were trying to get social services (Medi-Cal) for one of my housemates who has a drinking problem. He is a 50-year-old male. He was denied services and I'm certain it is because the underpinning is that young males can just fend for themselves!

The fact remains that V. has physical and mental issues that need to be addressed. He's probably bipolar.. and cant get treatment because he can't work, doesn't have health insurance and can't get Medi-Cal.

The whole thing is insane! Why completely disenfranchise a major portion of the population?




jen said...

i've got bucketfuls on Housing First and the philosophy behind it. The recent report I shared touched on it's failurs though...but i still think it's the best idea in a while.

I'll email you some stuff this week.

Thailand Gal said...

Jen, I'm especially interested in the philosophy behind it. Thanks. :)



Bones said...

I don't have enough time for a long response, so I'll only say this: I've been to a lot of nations, and every one of them has homeless people. Even the ones that aren't modeled after Puritans.

I don't say that to justify any nation's lack of compassion for homelessness. But given your freakish brilliance (Jen is right about that) its way too easy to paint with a broad brush and say that its an American problem, or a capitalism problem. Because, honestly, it’s a problem that every polity has. I even saw homeless people in Zurich!

I think step one is recognizing the different direct causes (mental illness, financial hardship, disaster, choice, etc) and step two is making systemic policy changes that can fix the majority of some of the direct causes.

I wish I had more time.. I could write about this topic for hours.