The Homeless, Part IV: At the Margins of the Marginalized
This April I wrote a paper on homelessness for one of my seminary classes. The recent anti-homeless laws passed in Berkeley (which I talked about in this blog) prompted me to republish it here.
This is part 4.
A SYSTEMS ANALYSIS OF HOMELESSNESS
The individualism of the West is based on belief in a world which is at base composed of self-contained atomic units (as in Newtonian physics). Scaled up to anthropology, it follows that humans are best understood in isolation, that rationality best reflects natural law, and that a person’s life-trajectory is their own responsibility. The modern world we are familiar with is a great experiment in applying this worldview. Unfortunately, it is based on faulty science. Over the past century, “a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican revolution” (Captra and Luisi, xi) has taken place largely outside of the public consciousness. It has precipitated a rejection of mechanistic explanations for the discovery “that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationship; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.” (Capra, 3)
Three significant implications emerge from the recent scientific paradigm shift that inform this paper’s reflective point of departure. First, in the words of systems theory pioneer Donella Meadows, “You’ll stop looking for who’s to blame; instead you’ll start asking, ‘What’s the system?’” (34). Locating social problems in individuals is no longer a tenable alternative. Rather, our analysis must attend to the broader contextual forces at work which collaborate to produce the world we are familiar with. Second, modernity’s stern division between facts and values is a farce. “In reality, scientific facts emerge out of an entire constellation of human perceptions, values, and actions...from which they cannot be separated” (Capra, 11). Social systems designed for maximizing mechanical efficiency regardless of the “waste” products produced along the way can no longer stand above reproach by reference to natural laws. The waste of these systems has too often included human lives. Our systems are products of our culture, and therefore must stand trial before people of conscience. Third, “from the new science’s perspective, “the only viable solutions are those that are sustainable for life” (Capra and Luisi, xi). This is convenient for Christians and makes our voice particularly relevant in the new milieu for we have words of great sophistication to offer in regards to systems that cultivate abundant life.
Of course, this approach is not new. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the following over half a century ago: “We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” People of faith have intuitively believed this for some time, but having the most progressive science to back up our claims gives us newfound legitimacy in the public square. In the spirit of these principles, let us now critique a few major systems that have stolen life from the homeless before moving on to God’s vision of life-giving shalom and methods for reconstructing society toward this redemptive end.
At the Margins of the Marginalized
The first thing that must be noted in reconnecting homelessness to the broader context is that it is--along with death--the cul de sac at the end of every marginalizing road. When society rejects someone, their journey of exclusion culminates in a functional ejection from society to the street. And in many ways, to fall out of society is to no longer be a member of the human race.
From the poor to people of color, from LGBT youth to the formerly incarcerated, disproportionately large percentages of marginalized people groups find themselves homeless. It was this overwhelming correlation that led me to choose this topic for my final paper. The following are only a few examples:
- Over a third of the homeless were at one time a ward of the state or in foster care compared to only 2% in the general population.
- Of homeless youth, over 40% identify as LGBT. Not only is this disproportionate to the overall youth population, LGBT individuals are often further rejected by so-called faith-based homeless shelters.
- 40% of the homeless are African Americans (compared to 11% of the general population); 11% are Hispanic (compared to 9% of the general population); and 8% percent are Native American (compared to 1% of the general population).
- As high as 70% of the homeless have spent time in jail. Conversely, being homeless vastly improves one’s chances of eventually becoming incarcerated.
- It is not redundant to remind the reader that the poor make up 100% of the homeless.
Marginalization begets further marginalization. In systems theory parlance, this is referred to as a reinforcing feedback loop, “a vicious or virtuous circle that can cause healthy growth or runaway destruction…[that] are found wherever a system element has the ability to reproduce itself or to grow as a constant fraction of itself” (Meadows, 30-31).
Advantage or disadvantage quickly compounds on itself. Children who grow up in poverty often do not receive the same care and training during the first few years of their life. They show up to kindergarten already behind their middle and upper class peers, and without significant intervention often never catch up. Each time a traumatic event happens in someone’s life, another chip of disadvantage is stacked on the scales against them. Bearing in mind the agency of human beings and the complexity of their environments, these factors are not deterministic, but clearly all do not play on an even field. Our history and context have significant bearing on the likelihood each of us has to live on the street. At the same time, genuine efforts to combat homelessness mean moving upstream to the sources of oppression and injustice in all their forms.
 - Since this is such an aenemic explanation of all the complex sides of modernity, here are a couple suggestions for further reading. The best philosophical analysis I have seen is Charlene Spretnak, “Chapter 2: The Rise and Fall of Modern Ideologies of Denial,” The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World. Her critique comes from an ecological perspective, which allows her to move past deconstructionism and offer something fresh. Euro-American explanations always fall short, however. We are too much inside the water to fully explain it. Walter Mignolo's The Darker Side of Western Modernity brings the perspective of the marginalized to bear like a tidal wave that drags all a city's trash out into the street. His book make the convincing argument that colonialism is at the heart of modernity, that these are two sides of the same coin, one unable to be understood without the other.