Homelessness is a social failure. When your fellow citizens have nowhere else to sleep and so sleep in the streets, this says more about you and the people with someplace to sleep than it does about the poor person who just couldn’t get it all together that month and lost their home. Debt snowballs fast when you live paycheck to paycheck. Before you know it they are putting your stuff in the street and changing the locks on the doors that used to be yours, and you wonder how all that debt piled up that quickly.
Just like that, you are homeless. You were a respectable upstanding citizen with an address before the eviction, and after the eviction you don’t exist. Maintaining an address is the baseline for receiving any assistance. If you don’t have an address, the government can’t and won’t help you. Those are just the facts, especially in Texas. Homeless people die every day on the streets of American cities and no one notices their deaths unless it’s a slow news day and so the homeless death notices reach the evening news. The poor, overworked cops who check the scene for evidence of wrongdoing, the workers at the city morgue who take possession of the remains when there is no known next of kin. They’ll notice, but there is little they can do all by themselves.
…and the only thing that separates you from those lowly, unmourned, unwashed street people is the ability to name your home address and prove that you live there. What would you do if you couldn’t go home to comfort every night? Scary to contemplate, isn’t it? That is life for a lot more Americans than most of us are willing to accept.
When I first listened to the On The Media series on eviction, The Scarlet E, I really couldn’t see myself needing to reference the series. I mean, I’ve never been evicted (knock on wood) I don’t have any first hand knowledge about the subject, it would be presumptuous of me to write anything of length about a subject that I hadn’t experienced personally or hadn’t researched thoroughly, and I wasn’t planning on doing either of those things anytime in the near future.
Then, as most things in life happen, I was reminded of design ideas that I have worked on since homelessness started to be a problem I noticed back in the 1990’s. The city of Austin is drowning in homeless people these days, people who were evicted from housing in Austin that now live on the streets of Austin. Any longtime resident that is paying attention to how housing prices have inflated over the last few decades should not be surprised by this. Housing prices have doubled and quadrupled while wages have remained essentially stagnant. This is a recipe for disaster, and that disaster is now sleeping on the streets of Austin.
Donald Trump tried to criminalize homelessness. Anyone who thinks that law and order will put things back to the way they were (as if the hippies of the 70s were known for their adherence to law and order) needs to understand why we are having the problems we currently have. We cannot jail our way out of this problem, and we cannot expand our way out of this problem either.
The camping ban, one of the things that has divided Austin for decades, will not solve the problem. There are many other cities in the United States who have been fighting this problem for far longer than Austin has and they have all come to the same conclusion. Camping bans will not solve the problem by themselves. The problem of homelessness has many facets that have to be addressed before we can even hope to get people off the streets. Adding to their suffering by persecuting these people will just make us worse people than we are now.
What is needed is a countrywide if not continental or worldwide resolution to see that everyone has a home and a bed and decent food. Until we undertake that effort then we will continue to trip over the homeless in our streets. It is a mark of the failings of our economic system that they are in the street in the first place.
The place to start when addressing a homeless problem is to find the right sites to put transition shelters in. You can’t just hide these people and places away, put them out on the edges of society and shun them. We tried that with the State Schools in Texas that were disbanded during the Reagan administration. That was how we handled this problem before and it didn’t work then. I don’t see how doing it again will change the outcome.
The site(s) should be near where the homeless congregate already. Many of the overpasses they sleep under could easily be repurposed into transition shelters. These aren’t ideal locations; but in a crowded city they represent the scarcest commodity of all, under-utilized real estate; which is why the homeless congregate there in the first place. An ideal location would be a large open field near a river. Historically the kind of place that humans have been attracted to.
The transition shelters need to not look like or feel like prisons. No fencing, especially no chain link fencing. No visible guards or towers or patrols. A significant number of homeless people have mental illness problems that being out in nature soothes. The kinds of problems that feeling penned up just makes worse. So don’t pen them up.
The residents of the shelter should be entrusted to do most of the work required to run the shelter. Growing and cooking food, cleaning, etcetera. They are not children and should not be treated as children (children shouldn’t be treated as children either, but that is a different subject entirely) this part of the effort will require the input of metal health experts. These experts should be included in every part of the design process for the transition shelters if we want to avoid repeating previous failed attempts at dealing with homelessness.
The problem with homelessness goes deeper than this though. It goes to the heart of our own misconceptions about what an ideal home is. The single family residence is a pipe dream that has never been attainable for most people and would be catastrophic to the environment if we attempted to give every family their own residence with a landscaped yard and two cars in the driveway. We have to get away from these unattainable dreams and start dealing with concretes.
- How much space does one person need?
- How much confidence/comfort is required to make a person feel at home where they live?
- Stopping theft without making prisons.
- Stopping violence without making prisons.
A work in progress