People Without Homes: “We’re not monsters.”

Statue of Christ the Homeless, in Toronto, via Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Christ the Homeless, in Toronto, via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s been a lot written about homelessness in the last year or so in reference to Housing First-type programs. Think Utah, or more recently, areas in the northeast. Housing First’s premise is built into the name, that the most effective way we have to eliminate homelessness is to house the homeless. Stability in the form of a safe place to return to at the end of every day makes it easier to confront those other aspects of our troubled selves.

I write ‘our,’ because one commonality in writing about homelessness from those who don’t advocate its end is to constantly reference personal issues. Substance abuse. Mental disorders. Criminality. Except when that language and those concepts are deployed it allows us to disconnect from the persistence of homelessness. It excuses our responsibility as a community, and forgives us our lack of shame, for failing to ensure basic living standards for everyone, including the right to safe shelter, regardless of the histories that we all carry.

If that security isn’t forthcoming from state and local agencies, the people themselves will often do what they can (emphasis in bold mine):

Nickelsville is one of several roving tent cities in Seattle. Christened in a deliberate slam against Seattle’s former mayor, Greg Nickels, whose administration regularly cleared homeless encampments, it has relocated about 20 times since its creation in 2008.

Today, at the corner of 10th and Dearborn, a few hundred yards from the I-5 overpass, a cluster of tents and tiny houses painted flamingo pink huddle together against the Seattle chill, bright splotches of color under a dove-gray sky. The houses were built by Home Depot Foundation volunteers. The pink paint pays homage to the encampment’s original tents, which were donated by the Girl Scouts.

[…]

But because there are tents and wooden structures, Nickelodeons, as the 40-odd residents call themselves, have roofs over their heads. And because residents take turns working security and maintaining the property and running weekly consensus meetings, they’ve got somewhere to feel safe, to feel welcome, and to call home — at least for a little while.

Seattle allows them to stay in their current location because they are sponsored by a faith organization — this time, it’s the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd — as well as permission from a private landowner. The permit should last until September, when, most likely, they’ll have to find another scrap of underutilized land and move on.

[…]

And there’s a ready openness to the culture here. It’s a family, albeit at times a dysfunctional one. People look out for one another. And many are eager to help transform the face of homelessness. “Yeah, a lot of us have our own problems,” Yoe told me with a shrug. “But everyone does. We’re not monsters.”

These are selected excerpts from the beginning of Sara Bernard’s longer Vox piece (originally posted at Grist). For more on-the-ground reporting you should read my friend Casey Jaywork on Nickelsville and the broader context of punitive legal action against the homeless in Seattle. In both instances one can see how either reaction — temporary structures that allow folks to escape being punished — is unsustainable.

It’s also not the only city with homeless encampments:

Most people think the homeless population live out on the streets, where most of people work and play, but there is a homeless world you likely have never seen.

It’s down dirt trails and behind the palms and palmettos, where small villages of people have been built piece-by-piece.

The crime at some of the camps has made headlines. From drug overdoses to fights to murders, the attention-grabbing crimes have cities all over central Florida trying to shut the camps down.

But that is just part of the story here; there are at least 10,000 homeless in central Florida, most of them tucked away with the residents trying to stay out of trouble.

“We are not homeless. We are houseless,” said Terry, one woman Butler interviewed during her tour of a world beyond Orlando’s main streets and busy downtown. “I have a tent. That is my home. This is our home, this right here and I love it.”

Asked later if Terry would trade her tent for a house, of course, her response was “hell yeah.”

Yet there it is, in the very lede, the underlying judgement we all make; “The homeless have been making news in downtown Orlando, and often it’s not very good. With thefts, fights and even rape attributed to the homeless, the perception of the life they live has some people calling for change in the city.” Everyone knows that theft, violence, and the violation of the human body is uniquely found among those without homes. Thus, we’re able ‘otherize’ those folks but not recognize the process that dehumanizes them as we cheapen ourselves. The change called for wasn’t to provide housing, but downtown residents petitioning the removal of unwanted individual with nowhere else to go. The City Beautiful already tried that route, and thankfully, finally, is now attempting something different and altogether humane.

The success and growing acceptance of Housing First and similar programs is tentative, but promising.

The point, if I’m allowed just one in a single post, is that policy should identify and address problems as they exist — not provide an excuse for collectively turning an eye. People with problems are people with problems. People who are homeless do not have homes. They often do have other issues, and a well-designed system should address those as well (see Harold Pollack’s piece on integrated care), but the former should never be confused for the latter. If the homeless are monsters for finding themselves without stable housing, then what does that make the rest of us for abiding its persistence?

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