Homelessness has become a social disaster on a scale unseen since the Great Depression. It’s a structural crisis that’s escalated to a degree that, despite the best efforts of status-quo neoliberalism to hand-wave it away, can no longer be denied – and neither can its causes.
We’re now in the thirteenth year of a recession with no end in sight, the poorest hit hardest and offered inadequate relief – if any at all – while an out-of-control housing market compounds the problem with price-gouging that escalates with zero regard for whether anyone can still pay. Empty residential properties outnumber homeless individuals multiple times over. The number of people sleeping rough or one missed pay-check from it was growing even before the pandemic hit and tipped countless more people over the edge.
The system as it stands is untenable – the basic facts of the matter are clear and acknowledged outside the most blinkered fringes of free-market dogmatism.
Yet even as the crisis escalates and the driving forces behind it are thoroughly documented, the societal drive to tackle it has remained strikingly muted – not just in the obvious foot-dragging of politicians who are actively on the side of employers who pay poverty wages and landlords who want to pocket every penny of them, but in the fact that our broader culture’s reaction to what should be one of the greatest outrages of the modern era has been largely ineffectual. We know how the fire started, how it spreads, we have the means to put it out; but instead the current of mainstream debate hedges and equivocates over whether there’s any point hitting the sprinklers or which rooms in the building are really worth the water bill as the flames rage higher with every passing minute. Along with the raw facts of this humanitarian catastrophe, this too is being thrown into sharper relief than ever – how attempts to confront the root causes of homelessness and fix the problem have been shackled by a set of narratives that undermine our culture’s ability to even see it as unacceptable in the first place. And what makes these narratives so dangerous is that they’re not the kind of outright denials that can be directly refuted with evidence alone, but a slippery, mutable mix of positions that in one form or another boil down to “so what”.
Homelessness has been functionally weaponised – perhaps not as a matter of conscious policy, but undeniably so in its outcomes
Homelessness has been functionally weaponised – perhaps not as a matter of conscious policy, but undeniably so in its outcomes. To the dominant system, whether conservative or liberal in its surface-level ideological framing, homelessness has become a kind of passive eugenics; eliminating those considered unproductive and undesirable in a way that’s detached enough from obvious mechanisms of intent that it can be passed off as bad luck. This fact becomes clear at the inevitable moment in any discussion of the issue where someone who’s drunk the establishment-consensus Kool-Aid comes out with that line – we all know the one, roughly – about how many people experiencing homelessness are addicts, or mentally ill, or otherwise where they are as a result of some personal flaw of their own and not the outcome of a system that failed them. If from a conservative, this will be followed by an open declaration that it’s their own fault and they should be left to rot for their supposed failure at proving themselves deserving of life; if from a liberal it’ll just be left awkwardly hanging with the implied conclusion cringingly avoided. Both boil down to the same old eugenicist concept that some people are simply unworthy of life – and it’s an idea that’s been allowed to become frighteningly normal.
First of all, let’s get the addiction issue out of the way. Yes, a lot of people experiencing homelessness are addicts. We could argue about how often addiction is the result of homelessness and not its cause, a coping mechanism for the stress and isolation and misery, that a stable living situation helps people overcome their substance abuse problems – but at the end of the day that isn’t actually relevant. Attempting to engage with these arguments just ends up falling into the same trap, normalising the idea that offering help should be contingent on the recipient meeting some arbitrary standard of moral rectitude. When someone trots out the “they’ll just spend it on drugs/drink” line in whatever form, the only right answer is “I don’t care”. At the most basic level, if you give a homeless addict some money, then yes, they might spend it on drugs or drink, but an addict is going to spend a set amount of money on the source of their addiction anyway. Giving that person money regardless means you’re increasing the probability they’ll have something left for food or shelter – or at the very least the probability that they won’t end up going cold turkey and dying alone in an alleyway. Beyond that, the disturbingly prevalent idea that entirely non-financial help should also be withheld from addicts, as if a person could somehow spend food stamps on heroin, doesn’t even have that excuse to back it up – it simply reveals a latent, sadistic desire to see homelessness used as a punishment.
When it comes to mental illness, there aren’t even any pseudo-moralistic justifications to invoke. The nonsensical hand-wringing insistence, whether asserted directly or insinuated through oceans of tortured euphemism, that people experiencing homelessness with severe mental health issues are “beyond helping”, that their situation is somehow “voluntary” because their condition caused them to drop out of compliance with a “normal” life and therefore there’s no point trying, is an even more blatant form of social Darwinism. In this case the attitude is one that help should be granted or withheld to a person based purely on whether or not they can be fully retooled into an economically productive unit; the outcome of a subconscious landlordist sensibility that life is a rental commodity, and that if you can’t pay your way then it’s perfectly acceptable to evict you from it just as it’s perfectly acceptable to evict you from your home.
Indeed, social Darwinism itself was rooted from infancy in landlord ideology. During the Irish Great Famine – itself an entirely manufactured result of landowners and the British government prioritizing crop exports for profit over tenants’ ability to feed themselves – the majority of deaths were the product of mass evictions; more were killed by disease and exposure after being made homeless than died from direct starvation itself. While superficially decrying the conditions of Ireland’s tenant farmers, the British government evaded every opportunity to offer aid, tacitly allowing the devastation to run its course as an instrument of population control. The idea became formally codified in the following decades through layers of pseudoscience, manufacturing a justifier narrative for colonial genocide upon colonial genocide driven by the prioritization of profit extraction over the lives of colonized subjects, before falling into disrepute – at least as an openly-advocated stance – after Nazism took it to its inevitable conclusion. But by then, the underlying logic had embedded itself in the ruling-class worldview on both sides of the Atlantic, too deep to be dislodged even as it became something few were willing to acknowledge out loud. Dominant attitudes to homelessness and poverty today are ultimately part of the same continuum.
Modern social Darwinism at its most strident extreme categorises homelessness in general as a self-inflicted wound, the inevitable and entirely proper consequence of laziness or financial imprudence. Its seemingly moderated form is scarcely better. The superficially more humane stance that divides people experiencing homelessness into deserving and undeserving, offering help to only those deemed virtuous while writing off others on the grounds that they, tragically, just can’t be helped is no less a product of the same ideological current; replicating the same division of human life into worthy and unworthy, just incrementally expanding the criteria for worthiness and congratulating itself for the supposed benevolence of doing so. Both positions need to be understood as fundamentally unjust. People shouldn’t have to prove that they’re respectable or hard-working enough before they’re considered deserving of the basic essentials of life – and it’s long past time to stop engaging with the idea, whether stated outright or just implied, that they should. In a situation with clear-cut right and wrong options – and there are few situations more clear-cut than this – moderation and compromise only produce marginally restrained wrongs. Once we allow ourselves to see some level of entirely avoidable harm as acceptable, we leave ourselves open to having our efforts to prevent that harm ground down and the margin of acceptable harm being widened by increments; until the principle of helping only the “worthy” results in helping no one as the bar for worthiness is gradually raised too high for anyone in need of help to clear. A system that treats ensuring help doesn’t go to those who don’t absolutely need or deserve it as a higher priority than ensuring it does go to those who do will always see the former swallow the latter. The system that’s currently in place proves this beyond doubt.
And this isn’t just a moral argument. From a coldly practical position, the more means-testing you incorporate into a social safety net, the more needless organizational complexity – and unnecessary cost – ends up baked into it. Administrative waste cancels out any savings that could supposedly be made by ensuring only the arbitrarily-defined “deserving” are catered to. We can see this clearly in the outcomes of laws passed in some parts of the USA that impose mandatory drug tests as a condition for receiving food stamps. Beyond the mindless, sanctimonious, morally bankrupt cruelty of such a policy, it ends up costing the state more in the end anyway. Contrary to current received wisdom – whether it’s genuinely believed or invoked purely as a cover story – callousness and pseudo-moralistic parsimony isn’t the logical or materially efficient path.
The only way to solve the homelessness crisis is the most basic, obvious, practical and cost-effective one – to hit the circuit breaker on the whole phenomenon by providing housing and the essentials for living as a universal and unconditional right. The fact that this obvious fix from any rational perspective still isn’t seen as an obvious fix in the eyes of the mainstream policy consensus should be taken as a wake-up call; a clear indicator that it’s time to self-reflect, to analyze, recognize and finally discard the irrational, immoral, antiquated, self-sabotaging, socially destructive, and functionally ineffective set of dogmas that are still setting the rules. The only fair and the only logical option is a universal one. Anything less is nothing but a controlled failure – and it’s a failure that’s costing lives.