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  • Writer's pictureD Lane

Worthy? Not worthy?

[It’s my birthday today. Not doing a lot of celebrating but I do have a wish today:

Engage with this post... and maybe share it, too. Consider and reconsider your attitudes and beliefs about people living outside and invite others to do the same... ]

I ask you to consider these words:

· Vagrant

· Bum

· Addict

· Filthy animal

· Derelict

· Scum

· Homeless by choice

· Transient

These are words some of us toss around too easily when talking about the people in our community who do not have a home -- and live on the streets and other public spaces.

The words play a tremendous role in making our community’s homelessness challenge even harder to resolve.

How so?

People who use these words in this context are often (consciously or not) asserting that the human beings labeled this way are not worthy and are less important that the rest of us—the rest of us who are able to obscure our shortcomings and weaknesses and poor behaviors behind the walls and doors of our homes.

Once we have devalued these humans with these words, many things flow easily. We can turn away without much thought. We can suggest that our community do things to them that we wouldn’t do to the “regular” people. (Lock them up; bus them away; rough them up; etc.) Most importantly, this gives us permission to allow their difficult and often miserable situation to continue – and rationalize that this continuing difficulty is okay.

Some of us that are housed in the community try to make sure “they” don’t sleep near us or hang out near us. We romanticize their situation by claiming they have it easy – as they sleep out in the cold and rain. They have it easy – as they try to maintain personal hygiene without a toilet or a sink near the spot they spend the night. They have it easy – as they experience daily scorn heaped on them by many members of the housed community. They have it easy - as they stand in line outside in a parking lot to get one decent hot meal each day. They have it easy - as they attempt to keep ALL their possessions safe and within reach as they move through their day. They have it easy -- as various authorities limit where they are allowed to be. They have it easy – as they experience the traumas of living on the street and then are told that their problems are simply personal failings. They have it easy as they are the victims of crime at much higher rates than housed people (theft of possessions, physical assault and abuse, sexual exploitation, etc.). They have it easy – since they chose to be homeless by getting abused by a family member; chose to work less than 70 hours per week to make the rent; chose to get a serious illness or injury that insurance did not fully cover; chose to be born with a severe mental illness; chose to grow up in a community that has one shelter bed for every four unhoused people; chose to be neglected by the foster care system; chose to have a family that couldn’t support them through a bad time. (So many bad choices!)

And, lest we forget, they have it particularly easy as their life expectancy diminishes by about 25 years due to their lack of housing. Clearly, they choose to die much younger than everyone else. (This is not hyperbole... the data reflects this greatly diminished life expectancy.)

The folks who have become the users of the dismissive language do so for more than one reason. But one reason really stands out: they do it to justify not constructively addressing the human needs (and humanity) of those without a home. Once you have labeled a person (or a category of people) in a way that makes it clear they are not worthy of assistance or compassion, you no longer have to do anything except perhaps complain and seek punitive measures and support pushing them away.

There are just two problems with this “unworthy” designation approach. One is obvious to many of us but not obvious enough to the rest: these are human beings we are talking about. Even if they misbehave or smell bad or are unfriendly or sleep in a car near your house or use drugs or collect bike parts or call out to no one in particular as they walk down the street or leave trash in the park or defecate on the ground, they are still human beings. They still need decent food and functional clothing and a dry bed and a spot to experience bit of private time and human connection and health care and a sense of purpose and love, just as housed people do.

The other problem with this approach is that it simply doesn’t work.

  • Pushing people around just means they’ll be in someone else’s “backyard” or on another sidewalk or park nearby. And the housed people down the road are also pushing and they are pushing unhoused folks toward you. A pointless and endless cycle of pushing.

  • Locking them up for petty crime simply means hiding them for a moment in a cell and then returning them to the same situation (which is a negative outcome for everyone involved).

  • Towing their vehicles away simply means that they’ll sleep outside near someone’s home rather than in a car near someone’s home. And the waste that people sleeping in vehicles sometimes leave behind will simply go more directly onto the ground.

Really... the only solution that has any lasting value is to get folks indoors in a stable living situation. Even those with addiction or mental health problems or a history of theft crimes need to be housed in some way. It is extraordinarily difficult for a person with these challenges to overcome them if they remain sleeping outside, disconnected from almost everything that could support their recovery and improved health and improved behavior.

Please: Don’t lose sight of the fact that even a recovered or rehabilitated person living on the street remains homeless until they have a home. Period.

And, if you disagree with this overall approach of getting EVERYONE housed in some way, I invite you to explain your disagreement with serious data/research/evidence and with alternative approaches that will work for the most troubled and troubling people on the streets. Please, though: No anecdotes of one thing that happened to work for one person are not shown to work for lots of people—and no phony “solutions” grounded mainly in deep frustration or anger. This is not about venting—it’s about making things better for everyone.

I will gladly post serious responses.

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Jan 14, 2022

Here's another comment I received by email:

Everyone is worthy. I think the government should build subsidized single room occupancy, studio apartments for the homeless and stop wasting the money on salaries to study the homeless.


Jan 12, 2022

Happy Birthday Don! As always, you have nailed it. Permanent housing is the solution for those who are homeless. Period. Academic studies have documented that we currently spend as much on police services, jails, hospitals, mental facilities, emergency shelters, etc as it would cost to build permanent housing with services for those who need it. We just need the will to combine siloed revenue streams. We need to tear down barriers--housing first and then address other issues so everyone may thrive. There were 2256 people homeless in Santa Cruz County on a given night in 2020. We should set a ten year goal to build 1000 units of permanent supportive housing to cut this number in half.


Jan 12, 2022

Thank you!


Jan 12, 2022

I can't imagine that there are very many people who would disagree with the idea that we should get "EVERYONE housed in some way." Isn't the question, really, how we are going to accomplish that? If we are going to achieve that objective collectively - through some sort of political/collective action, as opposed to individual acts of charity, which aren't happening now in sufficient numbers - then we need to reallocate our spending priorities on the national level, where we waste massive amounts of money each year on military expenditures - just to list ONE category of waste - and do, nationally, what Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has recently proclaimed in his city, that the city itself should guarantee an…

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