Imagining the Homeless—and Their Rights

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If you close your eyes and picture “homeless,” what would
it look like? Do you see a person? What does this person
look like? What is this person wearing? Is the person
female or male? What is she/he doing?
Some of you may have seen that person who regularly
rummages through the dumpsters at their place of employment
or their favorite restaurant. Still others think of the
person who asks them for a few bucks as they walk down
Walnut Street. Some may see an entirely different person,
perhaps a friend or a relative, an image that differs from the
mainstream portrayal of “homeless.” Alas, the homeless figures
that many of us see are simply artificial ideas of “homelessness.”
These static views live in our minds as untested
stereotypes and beliefs. In some powerful ways, this figure
of “homelessness” also serves as a false excuse to turn away
from the structural injustices and inequalities that shape our
lives, allowing us instead to chalk up homelessness to “individual”
problems—a plight of the mumbling, crazy woman
or the drunk guy on the bench.
In reality, the person asking for change on the street is
only a tiny part of an ambiguous group generally termed
“homeless.” The National Law Center on Homelessness
and Poverty estimates that there are 3.5 million people who
experience homelessness in the U.S. in a given year. And as
a result of current economic policies, we are seeing a rise in
the number of people living in cars, on the streets, and in
shelters not designed for housing. Grandmothers and
grandfathers are sleeping in their cars because the money
from their pensions and Social Security is not enough.
First-time homebuyers are being tossed out on the street
because of sub-prime mortgages from unscrupulous lending
Unfortunately, these are not new issues; we simply see
more clearly now how people become homeless. In reality,
people experiencing homelessness are often indistinguishable
from the housed working poor in the U.S., save one
factor, the lack of housing. Many of the working poor,
however, are also very close to slipping into homelessness,
often with only one paycheck standing between them and
eviction. Hence, living on the edge is not the result of individual
decisions—it is a policy-driven economic reality
perpetuated by years of pro-business policy.
U.S. labor history exposes decisions made in the late
1800s to solidify the use of wage labor, separating people
from subsistence labor associated with the home. We also
know that decisions were made to keep people at the
mercy of employers, as laws were passed to criminalize the
movement of “tramps” from place to place, securing them
as a relatively immobile, yet unhoused, body of workers.
These measures established an expendable workforce that
we see in place today, embodied in the figures of the working
poor, both housed and unhoused.
It is only when we acknowledge this history that we can
begin to create effective solutions with those who are most
in need. One obvious policy would be to increase availability
and accessibility of affordable housing. Funding should
be made available on a federal level so that cash-strapped
cities and regions could provide for this need. Job security
would also be improved through stricter regulation of
employment practices. Homelessness and transient movement
between regions should be supported or at least
decriminalized, with the recognition that personal mobility
is necessary to secure employment. These are but a few of
the multiple avenues through which U.S. policy could support
the interests of people rather than capital. These
avenues represent a structural response to a structural issue.
Yet, in Champaign-Urbana, as across the country, we persist
in trying to “end homelessness” through programs that
promote “personal” change and transformation; interventions
that seek to heal the individual, not the system. For example,
service recipients are asked to improve themselves through
classes, counseling, and money savings programs. This individualistic
approach is a result of a persistent misconception
of homeless individuals as the “undeserving poor,” a group
marked by their difference from other people living in poverty
and seen as responsible for their “condition.”
As a result of this misconception, shelters and transitional
living centers assist individuals in molding themselves to
fit back into capitalist ideals, so they can “make a living” and
“get by,” without ever disrupting the economic system of
injustice. But these programs are largely unable to provide
individuals with a space to define their own conditions of
life. Instead, they operate under sets of rules which are
designed to deter behaviors seen as deviant or destructive.
But real change requires an investment in humanizing
processes that allow those who have been disempowered
to define their own conditions for living. This is not a
novel idea; for example, in 1966, the United Nations
declared a Human Right to Adequate Housing, stating that
“[Housing] strategies should reflect extensive genuine consultation
with and participation by all social sectors,
including the homeless and the inadequately housed and
their representatives and organizations.” Nowhere is this
recognition of the human right to participate more needed
than in the work to end homelessness.
Here in Champaign-Urbana, for example, service
providers are often forced to offer services that coincide with
governmental beliefs about what is considered the “best”
way to address homelessness, rather than offer services that
arise from the real needs of people who use the services. This
detachment from needs exhibits itself on multiple levels. For
example, an individual who receives a disability check that is
too small to pay the rent cannot simply walk into the welfare
office and ask for more money. Similarly, a cursory glance at
available grants reveals which groups of people are currently
privileged by the government as “deserving”. Women with
children, in general, receive much of the available funding,
while single men, not labeled as “veteran” or “disabled” are
eligible for little to no funding. Yet, this doesn’t change the
fact that there are single men who also have basic needs and
should have a right to services.
What this points to, clearly, is that we need to change
our methods of addressing poverty and homelessness.
However, this change requires that we first transform our
notions of “deserving” and “undeserving,” as we seek to
humanize our understanding of poverty and homelessness.
Our current methods of funding are based on this
notion of deserving/undeserving, which eliminates the
question of need and the question of rights, such as
whether people have a right to housing.
What would policies based in human rights look like? For
one, we know that the interests of capitalism are for cheap
labor, which is antithetical to the interests of laborers. Thus,
we must strive to regain the economic safety-nets lost as a
result of the economic policies of the last two decades. Along
with this, we must work to bring those who are most exploited
to the decision-making table. And we must become proactive
as service recipients, service providers, and community
members, instead of waiting for federal and state governments
to dictate who is deserving of having their basic needs met.

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