Why can’t we get a grip on this problem?
Here in America, most people will just walk past a homeless person on the street and act as though he/she does not exist. —Jonah Reuben
The emergence of hostile architecture has compounded the moral crisis of our housing shortage. Too often we are leaving people experiencing homelessness with no place—indoors or outdoors—to rest or to be safe. —Tony Bernal
Just this last December, thousands of people in dozens of cities across the globe gathered together for the “World’s Big Sleep Out.” The participants of this event purposely slept outside in the cold in an attempt to increase the amount of attention that societies pay to the crisis of homelessness.
One participant, Jim O’Shea, told The New York Times that while sleeping in Time’s Square certainly helped him to empathize with the plight of the homeless, come the next morning he knew that he would be returning to “a bed, a shower, and heat.” In other words, this was not the same thing as living on the street night after night.
Here in Minnesota, since 2015 there has been a significant increase in the number of homeless. In fact, according to the Amherst Wilder Foundation, there are more Minnesotans currently experiencing homelessness than ever before.
Locally, homelessness is an issue that’s been covered in the news more than usual, at least of late anyway. There were the ferocious blasts of Arctic air that descended on the Twin Cities in late January of 2018 and again at that same time in 2019, resulting in an “emergency situation” for the area’s homeless population.
Plus, let’s not forget that the 2018 cold spell coincided with the festivities around Super Bowl LII, during which the homeless in Minneapolis were strategically relocated. Later that same year, one of the largest homeless encampments ever emerged along East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.
Then, a mere three weeks ago on Christmas Day, we all awoke to the tragedy that beset the residents of the Francis Drake Hotel. Within days The Minneapolis Foundation raised nearly half-a-million dollars to help the displaced families.
Donations of food and clothing were so voluminous that authorities couldn’t adequately manage them and donors were asked to stop bringing items to the scene. (See last week’s MSR lead story, “Drake disaster draws outpouring of community support.”)
This outpouring of support speaks to the best in all of us. It is quite common that we respond in this way to such a calamity. Yet, the misery of homelessness is relegated to singular events.
Homelessness is a tragedy in and of itself. And, as has pretty much always been the case, we are not doing a particularly good job of addressing this crisis.
Don’t get me wrong, there are multitudes of professionals out there in our world who have dedicated their lives and careers to the service of others, including those who experience homelessness. Moreover, there are scores and scores of individuals, including those of limited means, who give whatever they can of their time and money in support of those less fortunate than themselves.
Yet collectively, someway and somehow, we are still missing something when it comes to the issue of homelessness. To be clear, homelessness is not only rising in the Twin Cities, but in just about every major metropolitan area in the nation, including places where it was already out of control—cities like Baltimore, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Portland.
For the longest time—be it in the media, literature, politics, popular culture, or simply the larger society in general—the homeless have been treated as if they are “invisible.” Now, in a rather strange albeit predictable way, that is starting to change, and not for the better.
As the number of homeless people has increased, so has the hostility towards them. For example, cities such as Los Angeles have witnessed a proliferation in anti-homeless technology. According to one observer, author Joel Stein, there are neighborhood sidewalks in the city that have been “festooned with potted plants, four-foot-high plastic fences, cactus gardens and small trees” all designed to discourage homeless citizens from settling in those areas.
In Seattle, bike racks, sprinkler systems, and “anti-homeless” benches are just a few examples of the hostile architecture telling those already suffering the indignity of homelessness, “You are not welcome here.”
The perpetrators and defenders of such abhorrent behavior generally point to the notion that the homeless struggle with addiction, alcoholism or mental illness. As such, when they camp out near commercial and residential areas, they are bad for business, property values, and the public safety.
To be sure, one cannot deny the correlation between homelessness and addiction or mental illness. Perhaps, however, if society treated addiction as a health problem rather than as a personal flaw, we’d have a better grip on things.
The same goes for mental illness. Neither of these things are crimes, nor are they character deficiencies. Moreover, they are not the primary reasons for homelessness.
The most recent data from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reveals the three most common reasons for homelessness are lack of affordable housing, unemployment and poverty. The homeless include children, the disabled, veterans and victims of domestic violence, among others. America’s rising wealth and income gaps will only increase the ranks of the poor and the homeless over time.
Certainly, there are many reasons why people wind up homeless. Some do indeed need help with addiction or mental illness. Some need to escape an abusive relationship. Others need employment, transportation, and other critical supports.
But as social justice activist Cynthia Griffith notes, there is one thing that every homeless person needs. A home.
Dr. Clarence Hightower is a visionary leader with more than 37 years of nonprofit
experience in the Twin Cities. He is the current executive director of the Community Action
Partnership of Hennepin County, one of the largest anti-poverty organizations in the area and the state’s largest Energy Assistance program. He welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.