We only have so much attention to pay and critical-thinking time to invest. How we gonna use it?

It's uncomfortable and depressing to consider the roots of a social problem because that means taking a broad view and not just defaulting to individual experiences or anecdotal information ("I knew this one guy in high school who was super lazy, dropped out and never wanted to get a job– no wonder he kept getting evicted and ended up back at his mom's house."). It's also straight-up hard. We have to devote time to learning, reading and listening; we have to challenge some of our default narratives and biases.

We only have so much capacity for compassion, so much attention to give! Digging into the complex causes of homelessness is time-consuming and confusing. It's way easier to direct our attention and outrage to the nasty symptoms of poverty, like a guy pissing on the street, or the sad consequences of poverty, like two little girls burned to death in a steam explosion. Lucky for us, that particular story has a very convenient plot line: Apparently, the girls' parents abused drugs. Therefore, we can blame them for killing their daughters because if they didn't use drugs, they wouldn't be poor. If they weren't poor, they wouldn't have had to live in a shelter. If they didn't live in a shelter, their kids wouldn't have been burned to death. If that sounds cruel, know that a lot of people hold on to that notion. We gotta blame someone and it's just so much easier to blame a specific person or family. Check out the comments on this blog post to see those thought-processes at work.

That kind of blame narrative is also very helpful for distracting us from the roots of homelessness.

It goes like this: Shelters are shitty and poor people are disgusting with no self respect. Comfortably focus your anger on that shit instead of deeper causes of homelessness.

Again, we only have so much attention to pay, so much critical thinking time to invest. Why sink it all into understanding uncomfortable, complex crap when we don't have to? It's certainly not regarded as a social responsibility. 

Growing up in a small, conservative, rural town, I was constantly exposed to those simple, convenient responses, usually presented as anger, world-weariness and superiority. From a pretty young age, I knew that blaming poor people for poverty or ranting about more superficial storylines didn't seem accurate or honest. I couldn't put my finger on it and I definitely didn't have the vocabulary to express what I sensed, but I could tell that there were structures and systems that punished, obstructed and screwed certain people while rewarding others. In order to understand better, I needed to keep questioning the simple narratives and seeking the alternative ideas and explanations. These were generally more comprehensive and certainly more accurate.

It's hard to break away from the easy-to-parrot narratives, especially if you're young and lack a foundation of knowledge.  I needed jump-off points to better understand and to express my positions. Reading the 2016 State of the Homeless report composed by the Coalition for the Homeless reminded me of my early experience with struggling to put words and arguments behind what I perceived. It is a clear and concise resource we all need.

This particular paragraph, for example, serves as a handy summation of a key cause of homelessness:  

Rents in New York City once again soared in 2015, the market continued to hemorrhage affordable units, and incomes have not kept pace with housing costs – most significantly for the lowest-income New Yorkers. Between 2010 and 2014, the median household income across New York City rose by 2 percent, while the median rents rose 14 percent. In the lowest-income neighborhoods, the median income decreased by nearly 7 percent, while rents rose by 26 percent. At the same time, the number of units renting for less than $1,000 (including both regulated and unregulated units) decreased by over 175,000. This dramatic and growing gap between incomes and rents continues to drive countless New Yorkers into financial crisis, all too often culminating in homelessness.

The bad news is, ending homelessness requires prioritizing affordable housing (attitudinal change) and then actually building and preserving an adequate amount of truly affordable permanent housing (policy and system change). That's a lot of work.

The good news is, it's possible to end homelessness because homelessness/poverty is not an inherent trait. Massive homelessness is the obvious outcome of bad housing policies and trends, which we can change.

I think those who are new to advocating against homelessness might start from those two positions and then fill in the details. 

Overpowering our convenient, default thought-processes

What did he do become homeless – What bad decisions? What drugs?

That is often still my first impulse when encountering a homeless person. I default to blaming the individual for his or her circumstances. And I’m a social worker!

I know that I’ve been conditioned to respond like that. I think we all have. It’s convenient and it offers a pat, comforting explanation for someone else’s horrible, complicated situation – They did it to themselves. Phew. Thus we cling to the easy narrative.  

It takes some education and experience to override that programming. I say “override” instead of “deprogram” because we can’t get rid of old neural pathways, we can only build newer, stronger, more appropriate ones that overpower the regressive, untenable ones.

The new, stronger pathway enables us to understand homelessness as a complex social problem that screws individuals, not an individual problem that inconveniences society.

I met a formerly homeless man the other day who told me he became homeless after years of "drinking, smoking weed and doing the wrong thing." For years, his brief, rehearsed story has likely served as a simple explanation to satisfy others.

How the hell does drinking and smoking weed explain homelessness? We all drink, smoke weed and do the wrong thing. Everyone of my friends and I would be homeless if all it took was binge-drinking. But we’re not homeless because we all have families with money [a safety net], an expectation of success [the benefit of the doubt] and a society set up to swaddle and coddle us [power].

It’s just a lot easier to tap into the narrative of ‘“irresponsibility” through substance abuse to explain homelessness. Dig a little beyond the superficial story to consider the real causes of homelessness and it gets depressing and uncomfortable.

That man could easily say, “I became homeless because society doesn’t consider housing a human right. My family was poor so I did not inherit wealth. I worked – I worked very hard for many hours – but did not earn a living wage. My income did not keep pace with my rent and the cost of living in the most expensive city in the country. When I could no longer afford to rent my apartment, I had to leave. I could not find another affordable apartment because thousands of people are trying to get the same tiny number of affordable housing units. I became homeless. I drank and smoked weed more when I became homeless because it was a cheap way to ease my anxiety and mood, which worsened because not having a home is fucking hard.”

This New Year’s Eve, I propose that we all resolve to overcome our convenient, default thought-processes when we consider homelessness. We can shake ourselves back to reality and logic when we catch ourselves tapping into the tired narratives that comfort us (“That person deserves to be homeless”).

To more easily accomplish this, we can start with the premise that housing is a human right and everyone deserves a home, regardless of their decisions (and then with the fact that we don’t even know what their decisions were).