In my Washington, DC neighborhood – the most affluent in the city – people are upset about a homeless shelter proposed to be built in the neighborhood.
Some of my neighbors’ NIMBY attitudes aren’t unexpected, but our neighborhood hasn’t been singled out. Part of a city wide plan, which attempts to re-structure the way the city houses persons who are homeless, the proposed shelter is one of five designated to support homeless families throughout the city.
Instead of housing 270 families in one central shelter, which, all agree, is dangerous and overcrowded, these new shelters would house 50 families in each shelter, offering them more privacy and dignity.
With fewer families to help, the new shelter system’s proponents believe case managers won’t lose track of families or neglect their needs, and receiving more individualized attention, families will more readily escape homelessness.
Because these shelters promise a better future to these families than our current broken system, in one way, I hope the city overcomes my neighbors’ objections and builds the shelter. But, in another sense, if for the wrong reasons, my neighbors are right: no one should want a homeless shelter built in their community.
Each new one our society builds signals a collective failure of will and imagination to think more ambitiously about eradicating homelessness.
We shouldn’t debate where to put shelters and how many persons to house. We should work instead to eliminate the need for shelters. Because, however, it feels as if there are homeless persons on each corner asking us for spare change we can’t conceive of ending homelessness.
We’ve become too well acquainted with the wide range of reactions we experience when we encounter homeless people. We think nothing of walking past someone sleeping on a subway grate. Or we avert our eyes or walk to the other side of the street. Their begging exasperates us or we’re ashamed of our failure to act.
Unable to sort through these conflicting emotions, and overwhelmed by a problem that feels too enormous, we feel powerless to act, and have become too accepting of the status quo.
We need a revival of what Dr. King called, “creative maladjustment,” which refuses to adjust to the scandalous outrage of more than 560,000 persons nationally living without homes. Our maladjustment, I hope, will disquiet us enough to engender the creative solutions necessary to end homelessness.
Bringing together people irrespective of their ideologies, we should create greater solidarity among poor and non-poor persons that encourages them to work to end homelessness. Fully aware it’ a symptom, we’ll understand poverty is the disease we must overcome.
To convince others to end poverty, we should help them understand current government programs and private charitable efforts haven’t lifted 43 million of our brothers and sisters out of poverty.
Programs such as SNAP and Medicaid generate $2 for each dollar spent, and create jobs, and it’s estimated SNAP kept 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014, and Medicaid kept 2.7 million people out of poverty in 2010. These effective programs shouldn’t be cut.
However, the reality of 43 million persons reliant upon SNAP, and 69 million persons reliant upon Medicaid starkly remind us of the great need that stubbornly persists, despite our best efforts and intentions.
In similar ways, programs that help feed families, and help them meet their rent and keep their utilities connected are admirable, but only help so many. Requiring furthermore people go one place for food and another for clothing and three more to pay their bills diminishes their dignity.
And when you spend most of your time and energy scrambling to gather resources to survive, you can’t think about how to create a better future for your family.
Poor persons are best qualified to articulate they deserve much better. And their non-poor allies should empower them to advocate for solutions for their problems: greater societal investment in a stronger safety net, preparing and training people for jobs that pay living wages, affordable housing, food security, affordable and outstanding education, universal health coverage, and safe and peaceful neighborhoods.
Better advocacy by itself won’t overcome poverty, however. Poor persons won’t escape poverty until they can determine, as all people desire, their own futures. With others’ support and that of a better safety net, poor persons will need to avoid the destructive behavior that traps them in poverty and take advantage of the educational, training, and economic opportunities, which present themselves.
But those who don’t believe poor persons can rise or change haven’t paid attention. They’re among the more creative and resourceful people in our society. If we channeled the effort poor persons make gathering resources into creating good jobs or helping poor people own their own businesses, that could mean homelessness and poverty’s demise.