The Problem With Homeless People

Because I think it hits the nail on the head, I want to respond to Madison’s post on the criminalization of homeless people in Sarasota, FL. Many themes we have discussed this semester appear in her post, as well as many themes that are important to Parable of the Sower. Furthermore, the way people treat each other when housing is genuinely or is constructed to be scarce is a fascinating and powerful window into human nature, which is a primary concern for us as students of the humanities.

Madison’s post is about a city in which public policy has become a tool to intentionally harm those without housing. The city of Sarasota has a huge population of chronically homeless people—six times the national average—and passing laws that make it harder to be homeless is how they as a society chose to respond.

In Utah, society chose a different response. Called Housing First, their approach posits that the problem with homeless people is that they don’t have homes. Specifically, proponents of the approach argue that the chronically homeless—who represent about 20% of the overall homeless population in the US—need housing before they can address their other problems. Chronically homeless people are usually chronically homeless because of another underlying problem: 2/3 struggle with a primary substance abuse or other chronic health condition, and about 30% have a serious mental illness. Reading about this, I could not help but think of the way Lear went insane upon “being put out of doors” (h/t to Toni Morrison), and the way Florens’s desperation from her repeated evictions led her to become physically violent.

Evidence supports the Housing First approach: Utah saw the number of chronically homeless people in their state fall by 74%. The program was also more cost effective than other approaches that tried to resolve homeless people’s mental health issues before *trusting* them with their own housing. Without the safety and stability offered by a personal dominion, these people were incapable of dealing with their issues in a sustainable way, and the programs just kept pouring money into them without good results.

Some people are likely to find this approach as ideologically repellant as I find it ideologically gratifying, but deeper than the ideology here is the question of how sensitive we are to the plight of homeless people. There is a lot of evidence that housing helps get these people on their feet, and in the presence of such evidence our society’s predicament shifts from a question of whether these people can be helped at all to a very concrete choice between helping them and not helping them. Anything we as a society do in such a situation is a direct response to this question: Do we want our fellow people to thrive?

The situations posed in this blog post and Madison’s blog post feed directly into the question that Beth hinted at in class on Monday: is housing a human right? The results of the Housing First project certainly provide evidence that can be used for considering this question. I think i have my answer.

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