Today, journalists, media, and other advocates in San Francisco, Seattle, and beyond are highlighting the reality that thousands of people live outside, and lack safe places to eat, sleep, and exist. I am glad this is happening. I do hope the highlighting of our neighbors who live outside can continue the other 364 days a year, but I am happy that so many are talking about this today.
However, I am struck by the nature of this conversation. We are talking about the complex issue of how we deal with the reality that thousands of people lack housing, jobs, community, and safe places to sleep. Yet I often see few, if any, people who actually live outside participating. And if they are, it is usually in small ways outside of the main work. The people who are actually in the situation we are discussing seem to have little voice in these conversations, or are just not invited at all. And this is not unique to this particular day. The work of engaging homelessness and conversation about how we can solve homelessness, and about what communities can do in regards to homelessness, are often dominated by those who are not experiencing homelessness.
And this is unfortunate. Because we are not dealing with an abstract issue here. We are dealing with people. Human beings. People with agency and wisdom and skills to survive in situations many of us have never had to worry about. To not involve them in the work of ending homelessness is to treat them like objects. Like abstract problems to be solved.
Why is this so common? If our car is broken, we take it to the people that have spent the most time fixing cars. If we need to learn about gardening, we will seek someone who has gardened for years. If we want to learn to fly fish, we hire a guide who knows the river well and has spent countless hours fishing. Why then, when it comes to engaging the issue of homelessness in our community, do we not even ask those who live outside to have a voice (even a small voice) in conversations about ending homelessness?
I think a huge reason for this is the fact that our culture still sees poverty as a moral failing. That people who end up on the street do not possess the work ethic, the ability to make good choices, or the moral fortitude to succeed in our culture. Even when we acknowledge that there are structural and systemic injustices in our society that contribute to homelessness, we still like to believe that those injustices are not insurmountable barriers, and that a few good choices and some hard work can get you over them.
So given all of this, it is easy for us to assume that, since those who live outside ended up on the street through a combination of bad choices, low work ethic, and questionable morals, that it is up to those of us who possess those qualities to solve the “issue” of homelessness (read: those of us with middle class formal education, who are successful according to our consumerist capitalistic culture, and who possess the power and privilege to be seen as competent).
As well, I think there is another, and more subtle, reason that our culture sees homelessness in this way. Even if we see and acknowledge that there are factors, injustices, and situations outside of someone’s control that lead to them being on the street, we still want to think it had something to do with them and their own choices. Because otherwise, we would have to admit that there are people who end up on the street who worked hard, made good choices, and did the right things. Which would mean we would have to acknowledge that our own success might not be purely the result of our own hard work, good choices, and moral compass. In other words, we might have to acknowledge that part of the reason we are doing good in life is because of our own privilege. Because of things outside of our own control. And this is something we don’t like to admit, because it flies in the face of our belief in the American Dream Myth.
All of this is why it is so important that people who live outside are involved in any conversation, organization, or work relating to homelessness. Whether the work is about building community and relationship, like our work at Our Common Ground is, or about larger issues like housing and jobs, we need the voice, the wisdom, and the skills of those experiencing homelessness at the center of this work. We need to collaborate on how we can best work together toward creating communities where all people can not just survive, but thrive.
Because that is what we all want, at the end of the day. Not to “solve homelessness,” but to work together to imagine and create neighborhoods and communities where all people can live, work, and play in peace. And a good place to being that work is by inviting everyone to the table.