Society's choices mean there will always be those without - Albuquerque Journal

Society’s choices mean there will always be those without

A few weeks ago, I happened to glance out one of my windows in time to see a man standing very close to the corner of the wall around my lot, where the configuration makes a small pocket of privacy. I thought I recognized what he was doing; when he walked away a few moments later, I was sure. A few days after that, when passing by the local library on my morning walk, I saw some recently vacated bedding and a man standing more in than next to a dormant clump of waist-high ornamental grass. I recognized what was happening then, too.

I also recognize a couple of other things. First, every body has to eliminate waste from time to time. Second, being homeless means no private place to do what most people do in private – no place to secure personal property, no place to store and prepare food, no quiet and safe space to sleep in, no private place to use the toilet and get cleaned up. A body has to do what a body needs to do, and people who are homeless have no private place for that and, increasingly, no access to facilities that might be available to the general public.

And there is one more thing I recognize: Because of choices we as a society have made, we will have people who are homeless. … Our society has determined that basic needs like food, adequate shelter, health care, even access to clean water are not something every human being has an inherent right to simply by existing. We have determined these are goods which our society bestows on those who have proven their worth by acquiring the money necessary to purchase them.

… When we allow people to be paid too little to afford basic needs, when we allow property managers and investors to price low-income households out of adequate housing, when we protect profits for top executives and stockholders to the exclusion of the people whose work delivers those profits, when we keep assuring ourselves that if we just let the wealthiest keep enough money, they will share it freely with those in need, we make sure there will be people who lack enough money to pay for their basic needs.

When the subject of homelessness is raised, attention goes immediately to the smallest subset of the homeless population: the entrenched homeless, often with antisocial tendencies, who actively resist housing options. Most of the people who are homeless did have housing until something happened that cost them their housing, and they want very much to be back in housing again. That something can take many different forms: job loss, income reduction due to fewer hours of work, missing work due to illness, an unexpected major expense that breaks the budget (such as a) medical bill, car repair. People who fall behind on rent and can’t catch up get evicted. Once there’s an eviction on the record, it’s nearly impossible to get back into housing.

Substance abuse can be a factor. Sometimes, it is the something, but oftentimes it is a consequence of the spiral into homelessness. How else is a person to find the mental privacy to sleep in a public place? What other relief is there for the pain from having to be constantly on the move, the endless barrage of nasty looks and ugly comments from passersby? Given the current state of our health care delivery, it’s easier to self-medicate a mental health condition with alcohol and street drugs than to get appropriate medications and treatment.

… There are lots of ways we could interrupt this spiral: more shelter space for individuals and for families with supportive programs that help people access what they need to get back into housing (including) employment, treatment, rent assistance, advocacy for re-housing. Even safe parking areas with showers and toilets could help people stay employed and connect with services. Longer-term solutions require more housing units that are affordable for low-income tenants, increased funding for and acceptance of Section 8 vouchers, minimum wage standards that provide anyone working 40 hours a week enough income to cover the basics. Increased access to health care and paid medical leave are needed as well. …

Often, those most opposed to policies and actions that will reduce homelessness are the same people complaining about how terrible it is that there are homeless people everywhere, ruining just about anything. Our societal policy choices have consequences – and homelessness is one of those consequences….

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