A Community Vision (Series - The Third Pillar): Thwarting Homelessness
I have taken a much needed break from politics these past few months since you last heard from me. After last year’s election, I felt this need to take a step back, collect my thoughts, enjoy family time, and just get healthier. Now, I finally feel like I am ready to get back into the mix, and a crucial component of that is by continuing this community vision series.
The last time we looked at this issue we touched base on the ridiculous holiday message that a member of Newark City Council conveyed, aimed at the homeless. Councilman Harris exemplified the complete detachment of local government from the needs of the people when he expressed that the homeless were apparently homeless because they didn’t “do the right thing” and have enough faith in his preferred deity. His total lack of compassion here displayed the need for highlighting the central message of our previous entry: Seeing and Respecting the Homeless.
Now, we move to a vital issue for all of us: Thwarting Homelessness. Every single one of us is in danger of enduring homelessness in a moment’s notice. This is because homelessness is not a product of personal failure as much as it is a combination of unfortunate circumstances and a failed system. Yes, people tend to make some personal mistakes which often contribute to them becoming homeless, but that is not representative of all the un-housed, nor should it be used as an excuse to ignore this issue.
As I have noted numerous times in the past, the homeless are NOT the problem. They are the symptom of a bigger problem with our political and economic system. We have been content as a society to ignore these issues for so long that a great many of us do not even recognize that there are problems to be addressed. However, there is absolutely a crisis afoot and we the people must take ownership for letting those in power get away with sweeping it under the proverbial rug.
Moreover, we have to come to terms with this and we have to collectively desire an end to homelessness if we want to see it dealt with. Don’t be seduced by the propaganda of the few who insist that homelessness will “always exist”, because this is an attempt to discourage action. The few want us to believe that we can’t end homelessness because the solution involves them doing more than sitting on their cash and mocking the “bums”. So, yes, we must ask ourselves: “do we WANT to end homelessness?” I hope that the answer is a resounding “yes”.
Once we have resolved to actually address and inhibit homelessness we must then shift to working on building a network which prevents it. This stems from making sure that the cost of housing is affordable, that housing is safe, that the people have adequate income to live, that our transportation services meet our needs, and that we have sufficient mental health services. Moreover, creating an easy to navigate bridge out of sudden or chronic homelessness is crucial. If someone slips through the cracks, it is imperative that we help pull them back up.
No one can look at the rising price of housing at this very moment (with homes far exceeding $100,000 and even some getting ever closer to one million dollars) and think “anyone can afford this”. Working in any job that doesn’t pay at least $20 an hour right now requires assistance to survive and avoid homelessness. While we will get to the income issue more deeply momentarily, we have to at least ponder the issue of pay when it comes to housing right now due to the fact that everyone who is considered poor and Lower-Middle Class is one pay check away from living on the streets when the cost of living under a roof and within four walls is ever increasing at an accelerating rate. Without a guarantee of safe, quality, and truly affordable housing, we are almost begging for there to be a ballooning homeless population.
To expand for a moment on the safe housing question, it is often easy for lazy community developers to segregate housing so that the poor are all lumped together (and we will delve more into the question of development in the future). In theory, this makes a ton of sense. However, in practice, this creates an atmosphere of desperation and abuse. The desperation comes from the lack of adequate services and good paying jobs in the area. The abuse comes from the likelihood of corruption in property ownership: the often ignored problem of slumlords. Being poor is already bad enough without having an incompetent and/or intimidating slumlord in charge of your home. This is something wherein we must do more to protect the people.
Of course, you can’t separate the issue of homelessness from the discussion about wages. How can people be expected to live on a wage that requires government assistance as an accompaniment? Too many of our policymakers have bought into the ridiculous argument that minimum wages need to be kept very low because teenagers supposedly don’t need a living wage and because wage increases lead to price increases. The problem with both is that teenagers could benefit greatly from a living wage (think of how much they could save) and they are grossly exploited right now. Additionally, prices increase regardless of the wages! Without a living wage, homelessness is guaranteed to be a problem.
Getting around town is a vital issue to address as well. Mobility can determine where or whether someone works, whether that person can get to an affordable grocery store, and even whether or not they make it to important appointments. This is why in order to stifle the rising tide of homelessness, public transportation is vital. Relying on services such as our dying taxicab industry or expensive options like Uber and Lyft is unsustainable, especially as the cost of living rises unabated. Having an affordable fixed route busing system can make a major difference in the life of a person trying to survive and avoid being without a home.
Another matter which receives plenty of lip service – especially after a massacre involving a firearm – is mental health. The problem, however, is that elected officials use mental health for the stigmatic effect that it carries with every mention. It is employed as the proverbial boogeyman for those politicians looking for a way to circumvent the sacred gun issue. The void left by our inadequate services leaves many to struggle without help with some turning to self harm, violence, drugs, and/or falling into homelessness.
Truth be told, mental health – which plagues countless citizens housed or otherwise and both violent as well as peaceful - is sorely lacking solutions and it is a crisis created in a bipartisan fashion. Everyone talks about it, yet no one is determined to act. Most of what must be done can’t be done locally, but each community possesses some resources to make mental health services available. All that is required is the political will to actually do something of value on behalf of the people.
Finally, we ought not to reject pleas to facilitate a ladder of sorts to enable those who have collapsed into homelessness to pull themselves back out. Each community has a responsibility to those who suffer the most within. When one or a number of us falls on hard times, it does EVERYONE good for that community to pave a path which the downtrodden can traverse to escape the clutches of their suffering. Just like with prison, homelessness can be a vicious cycle which entraps its victims. Combating homelessness is impossible if we don’t attempt to make chronic homelessness unlikely via a series of safety nets and roads to getting and staying out of that hell.
Together, the totality of this vision for thwarting homelessness can make the threat of homelessness dissipate or even disappear. It all depends on our will and determination. The resources exist to accomplish this. It’s only impossible if we let that be the case. In our next part of this vision, we will touch on the vital issue of caring for the homeless (yes, we still have more to discuss on that crucial issue).