The Homeless, Part II: Myths of Individuality
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 two blogs ago) prompted me to republish it here. This is part 2.
In its full complexity, any single homeless person’s life defies easy explanations. However, because our culture has no qualms dismissing the life of homeless people, we continue to proliferate easy explanations. A myth attempts to provide a story that lays down a consistent, understandable answer to the apparent chaos that often surrounds us. In America, our myths about homelessness do more than simply identify causes. They are “also a stigmatized social identity that is given meaning according to its conceptual distance from ‘the norm” (Wasserman and Clair, 2). Our theories allow us to both distinguish the homeless--or any other “out” group--as not like us and to believe that the forces at work to create their situation are categorically separate from those that have led to our own. Conveniently for the privileged, it follows from this logic that we have no responsibility for their predicaments. We have accomplished these feats of distancing and abdication through two primary means:
1) a variety of myths that locate the “problem” in individuals instead of society, and
2) by embracing a groundless fatalism about the inevitability of poverty. This is subsequently extended to a belief that homelessness, as a common American manifestation of poverty, must also be inevitable.
To question these convictions, held so dear to the heart of mainstream culture, is to challenge a person’s view of themselves and their world. “Theories of poverty imply theories of society” (Royce, 18), and we can add that they also imply theories of personal identity. It is, therefore, natural to resist the seismic shifts a change on this subject may require. Despite how painful it may be for some, as we shall see, the reality is that “homelessness stands as a challenge to widely held beliefs about opportunity in the United States, and it highlights the importance of structural obstacles and inequality in our society” (8).
Fundamental to the notion of being American is the conviction that hard work and a responsible lifestyle will lead to the good life. In the land of opportunity, one must simply put in the time and success will follow. The shadows of Adam Smith, John Locke and Horatio Alger all stand by to gird up these ideals. While this provides a great sense of self-accomplishment for the well established, it has a dark side that goes like this: if my socio-economic success is solely the result of my impressive efforts, then your failure must be the result of your impressive deficiencies. “One can speak of the deserving and the undeserving in absolute terms. When used as a filter for viewing individual fortune and achievement, those individuals who are more successful (certainly the ‘homed’) are more valued than those who are less successful--clearly the homeless.”
Edward Royce identifies three variations on individualistic poverty theories. First, what he calls the biogenetic theory pertains to supposed physiological and intellectual shortcomings in the poor. Someone’s poverty is an outcome of their natural lack of abilities. They are not as smart as the rich, cannot achieve the same levels of education, or function in the same complicated workplaces. Their poverty is an inevitable outcome of their biological inferiority. Secondly, and in my experience the most common, Royce describes a cultural theory of poverty. As a group and as individuals functioning within that group, the poor are lazy and often disposed to criminality. The lack of a work ethic, possibly engendered through welfare dependency, is the primary cause of their impoverishment. If they would simply get a job, work hard, progress over time and save their earnings, all would be well. Finally, Royce outlines a tempting theory based on the idea of human capital. Those who have invested in their own assets the most--particularly in the areas of education and professional development--will have the greatest capacity to compete effectively in the marketplace. Others who neglect these inputs will expectedly fall behind.
Alongside these three, a fourth cause is specifically attributed to homelessness and has the greatest impact on continuum-of-care program design. The individual pathology explanations of mental-illness and addiction are by far the most prevalent causes on the lips of both everyday people and service providers. “Sometimes these are asserted explicitly as causes of homelessness and other times more vaguely conceptualized as inextricably intertwined with the conditions of being homeless” (Wasserman and Clair, 70). A significant collaboration that took place in Fresno over the past few years called the Community Conversations Group formed due to major sustainability failures within the mental health services arena. Out of this team, a new Strategic Plan for homelessness was designed and implemented. While I will compliment much of this team’s work later on, the dreary result is that mental health issues are now the defining characteristic of our approach to homelessness and likely will be for at least the next decade. There is no doubt that mental health and addiction services are needed. The issue comes when they become our organizing principle for describing and addressing the homeless. Once again, we have a myth that tells the homeless, “The problem is in you.”
These ideas have great prevalence in the public imagination and are reflected in our economic and political systems. I will not respond in great depth specifically to each, but will largely allow my structural analysis to reject these theories. Briefly: 1) It should be noted that there is absolutely zero scientific foundation for the biogenetic theory despite its prevalence. 2) The cultural theory is highly reductionistic. It is ignorant of the real culture of the poor in which most are extremely hard-working, law-abiding citizens, and ignores the way inequality fosters the cultural maladaptations like violence that it blames on the poor. 3) Human capital theory forgets that individuals do not exist in isolation, but that their capacity for self-development is largely derivative of their economic capacity and social capital, which will be explored more below. 4) Such a large number of homeless people are not substance abusers or mentally ill (at least not prior to their experience of homelessness) that medicalized theories cannot be considered an adequate explanation for this social phenomenon. With this last myth in particular it is vital to question the flow of causation--anyone who spends six months on the streets will begin to battle depression and find their mental clarity waning.
Even if every one of these claims about someone were true, we still must continue to ask: Why? Why do certain people have less human capital than others? Why do certain people have such high rates of mental illness and substance abuse? And most importantly, why would any of the reasons described above automatically necessitate homelessness? Addiction alone, for example, clearly cannot be blamed. Celebrities move in and out of rehab, but seem no closer to life under a bridge. “While addiction is certainly an obstacle, particularly to one’s getting off the streets once there, we cannot conclude that it causes homelessness, since it may often be the case that homelessness causes or at least exacerbates addiction” (Wasserman and Clair, 74). At a minimum, and a minimum is not enough, a stacking of multiple causes is necessary for an initial explanation. One must typically already be marginalized in some way in order to become marginalized through homelessness.
Tied up with the secular world’s individualistic rationalizations, the Church likes to offer a spiritual nuance: you are homeless because you have lived a life of sin. If you would only repent and believe, you will be saved from the consequences of sin and be able to get your life in order. Despite how many rescue missions and faith-based nonprofits operate out of this mindset, the reasons for rejecting such an arrogant idea are many. Much of what I say later will show its hollowness. For now, I affirm that following Jesus helps us through life, but I also remind the reader that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and not all are homeless. We need more complex answers than individual sinfulness to explain why some people fall out of homes.
 - Kenneth Kyle, Contextualizing Homelessness, 27. Quoted in Wasserman and Clair, At Home on the Street.
 - see Royce, Poverty & Power: The Problem of Structural Inequality.
 - These responses are largely shaped by rebuttals offered in Power & Poverty and At Home on the Street.