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a blog by

Nathan Davis Hunt

In Jesus-Christ.

For Shalom.

Through Love. 

Toward Solidarity. 

With Joy & Grace. 

Emplaced.

The Homeless, Part V: Structural Injustice

The Homeless, Part V: Structural Injustice

This April I wrote a paper on homelessness for a seminary course. The recent anti-homeless laws passed in Berkeley (which I talked about in this blog) prompted me to republish it here.

This is part 5.


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Structural Injustice


Personal lifestyle choices certainly have ramifications, but the breadth of effects and the funneling of certain outcomes into marginalized portions of the population are shaped by our social structures. I've met wealthy alcoholics with multiple homes and homeless people who are sober, and I know many homeless who are far harder workers than me. 

“We need to abandon the simplistic idea that poverty results from the moral weaknesses, bad behaviors, and inferior abilities of the poor....We need to recognize that the problems of poverty and inequality are inextricably bound to the power-laden economic and political structures. These determine the allocation of resources and opportunities, who gets what and how much” (Royce, Power and Poverty, 2).

Economic, political, social and cultural systems make up the primary macrostructures of human society. Though books have been written on each of these, I'll briefly identify some of the features in each that lead us to accept, create, and even criminalize homelessness.

 

ECONOMIC STRUCTURES

We need to recognize that the problems of poverty and inequality are inextricably bound to the power-laden economic and political structures. These determine the allocation of resources and opportunities, who gets what and how much.

Income inequality today is back to its highest recorded levels, on par with the depression era’s robber barons. “In 1970, the average U.S. CEO earned 30 times more than his lowest paid workers; in 2005, he earned 411 times more” (Salvatierra and Hetzel, Faith-Rooted Organizing, 5). However, even more damaging than income inequality is the dramatic disparity in wealth. A person’s financial assets represent their personal safety net. For the poor today, this safety net is nonexistent. “In 1997, the richest 1 percent of American families...owned 38.1 percent of the nation’s total wealth. The bottom 40 percent...possessed a miniscule 0.2 percent of total wealth” (Royce, 9). This gap has only mushroomed. A household is asset-poor if their wealth holdings cannot cover basic needs for three months. Unsurprisingly, rates of asset poverty for African-American and Hispanic households, are “over 60 percent [when] measured by liquid wealth” (10). Life without an economic cushion constantly teeters on the edge of homelessness. There's no margin for error when you're poor.

Wealth accumulation is, before anything else, a function of income, and income is primarily a function of one’s job. Unfortunately for the poor, good work in the city has rapidly evaporated. Globalization and the shift to a “knowledge worker’s” economy dissolved industrial jobs that once provide solid quality of life for the working class. In their place came low-income service sector jobs that withhold employee benefits and a living wage. No factor has influenced the rise in homelessness since the 1970s more than the loss of good jobs. [15] After income, wealth is largely derived from inheritance. Thus, any appraisal of present day capital distribution leads us to an historical account of systems that funneled wealth into the hands of white males and away from people of color.
 

POLITICAL STRUCTURES

Economic inequality funnels up into political inequality. Robert Linthicum reports that the top 13,000 richest families in America “gave 35% of all campaign dollars in recent presidential elections” (Transforming Power, 50). It is not surprising, then, that the political system is stacked in favor of large corporations and the wealthy, and against the poor. [16] Among its many harmful repercussions, three are of note for their direct impact on the homeless. First, the social safety net, which includes government provision of affordable housing, has been scaled back to the point where it no longer meets the needs of those on the street. “If there are more people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless than there are houses, apartments, and rooms to provide them shelter, there is a crisis” (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond Homelessness). Furthermore, if the free market fails to provide housing (and/or to provide habitable housing as in the case of slumlords) then the state has a moral responsibility to its citizens to help close the gap. [17] Similarly, if there are not enough living-wage jobs, the political realm has a central role to play in generating remedies. [18] It is not acceptable to wait for the market to produce a solution in its own good time -- not while men, women and children suffer. 

Vagrancy laws stack injustice on injustice when they make the oppressed into a criminal for simply living in a space he or she was forced into from the beginning.

Second, policy decisions played a key role in creating America’s blighted and abandoned inner-cities that raise and play host to the majority of our nation’s homeless. As Mark Gornik wryly states, “A lack of personal responsibility did not build the inner city” (To Live in Peace, 50). Racialized redlining, disinvestment, destructive transportation policies and highway construction, neglectful education policy, foolish zoning and a host of other activities created contexts that conclude with homelessness for some residents. Now that the wealthy are returning to urban centers, public officials must empower marginalized residents who historically call these places their home to lead their city's redevelopment.

This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in America’s inner-city leads us to the third and most tragically ironic political injustice: the criminalization of homelessness. “The US economy operates systematically in a way that inherently disenfranchises a portion of its citizens, while at the same time society cries foul at those who are the inherent product of its own structures and policies” (Wasserman and Clair, At Home on the Street, 155). Vagrancy laws stack injustice on injustice when they make the oppressed into a criminal for simply living in a space he or she was forced into from the beginning. [19] Conveniently, this situation creates no cognitive dissonance for the dominant culture thanks to their individualistic homelessness myths.

SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STRUCTURES

Many subtle and not-so-subtle elements of American culture and society converge to displace over a million individuals from their homes over the course of a year. These include the previously discussed ideology of rugged individualism and its subsequent poverty myths. Another oppressive force that cannot be over emphasized is our culture of discrimination on multiple bases of race, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, and mental/physical ability. That discrimination of these people exists is a fact I don't need to substantiate. Instead, I want to highlight how these "-isms" become ingrained at every level of our psychological and social worlds, significantly complicating the road to justice.

Ideologies like racism constitute a piece of a person’s worldview, and become expressed in the four following forms: 

  1. Intrapersonal: Discriminatory typologies are internalized into the identities of both oppressed and oppressor.
  2. Interpersonal: Interactions between type-casted individuals are shaped to become hurtful, exclusionary, exploitative, reactionary and even hateful.
  3. Institutional/Communal: Groups and organizations formed with conscious or subconscious discriminatory worldviews take corporate actions and set group policies that institutionalize the exclusionary actions/attitudes of individuals.
  4. Structural: When discriminatory worldviews are held by the powerful, they become enshrined in the society’s macrosystems, as we have been examining. [20]

Once again, there are feedback loops between each level that allows discrimination to built and reproduce. Thus, one can argue that a culture’s worldview is a hidden structure generating injustices like homelessness.

If you are part of a group that has been marginalized through discrimination, educational and vocational opportunities are far more difficult to acquire because these are primarily derived through social networks. If you live in a disinvested neighborhood full of similar people, the odds are exponentially stacked against you.

Disconnecting diverse members of the population has concrete ramifications. Social connections are how things get done and how opportunity arises. Social scientists describe these relational dynamics as social capital: “social connections have significant economic consequences…social capital consists of the benefits people derive from their personal interactions and social relations” (Royce, 187, 197). If you are part of a group that has been marginalized through discrimination, educational and vocational opportunities are far more difficult to acquire because these are primarily derived through social networks. If you live in a disinvested neighborhood full of similar people, the odds are exponentially stacked against you. Social capital forms part of the explanation of the disturbing prevalence of former foster children on the streets. Those who lack a strong network of support not only have a much harder time acquiring assets and are thus more susceptible to poverty, they are also in far greater danger when disaster strikes. No one is standing by to offer a hand back up. 

On the devastating effects of the dominant culture, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh are worth quoting at length:

“Urban decay, rampant poverty, and a society-wide crisis of homelessness may all be rooted in pathology, but it is not the pathology of the victims. If there is pathology to be diagnosed, it is a societal pathology that has diseased the very structures of the economy and the shaping of public policy for the common good. If there is a cultural cause of homelessness, it is not to be discerned in a blame-the-victim diagnosis of a ‘culture of poverty,’ but it can be discerned in a victimizing and excluding culture of economic growth at all costs” (93).

It appears the systems are stacked against “the other” in our midst.

However, it is precisely at the level of culture and worldview that we find the brightest glimmers of hope. Systems theorists demonstrate that because our structures are shaped to conform with our values, transforming a people’s guiding narrative offers the most powerful leverage point for systemic transformation. [21] As the gospel offer's a dramatically upside-down framework from the oppressive and self-seeking ways of our dominant culture, this is the time to turn to our faith. 



[15] - For a much fuller description of the impact of globalization on homelessness, see Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond Homelessness, 94-97. 
[16] - I just want to acknowledge that that is a strong claim that I am leaving unsupported due to space limitations.
[17] - This is not a claim I make based on contemporary politics, but on the bible’s concept of the role of government. See Moshe Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East.
[18] - By this I do not simply mean New Deal-esque government jobs. Creative policy needs to incentivize the business sphere toward social and ecologically just ends. Liu and Hanauer offer a thought provoking model for government in light of new systems science in their book The Gardens of Democracy. Additionally, as I explain below, this is by no means an abdication of the Church’s role in compassion and community development. Rather than detracting from this important responsibility, it highlights the people of God’s call to advocate for justice in the political system.
[19] - The homeless need to follow basic laws of social conduct in public spaces like anyone else and I am not advocating for panhandling (something that has never released anyone from the street). But when someone’s entire life has been banished to public spaces, it is not their fault that they must do life there. If we make it illegal to urinate in public (for example), but do not provide public restrooms, shame on us for criminalizing a victim.
[20] - This framework is partially based on the work of race scholar James A. Powell, and was presented by Deth Im, a PICO national trainer, during the Hope Fresno event Spring 2015.
[21] - See Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points.”

The Homeless, Part VI: Struggling Toward a Christian Response

The Homeless, Part VI: Struggling Toward a Christian Response

The Homeless, Part IV: At the Margins of the Marginalized

The Homeless, Part IV: At the Margins of the Marginalized