The Dilemma of the Homeless

[The following is an essay that I wrote for my current English course. It’s obviously a little different in tone from any of the… stuff that you’ve seen on this blog, like that incoherent string of sleep-deprived thoughts or the sexually implicit (no typo) discourse on the merits of the British accent or even the viewcount-exploding music stuff. You will notice that it actually incorporates something that I briefly wrote about before, though. It’s here for your reading and critique if you like, unless you’re someone that I’ve specifically asked to review it, in which case it’s here for your reading and critique whether you like or not. I am sorry.]

For a brief time in early 2011, the nation was abuzz over the story of a homeless man whose life had turned around literally overnight. Ted Williams, dubbed “The Man with the Golden Voice” by an engrossed media, was a former radio and TV announcer who had fallen into drug and alcohol addiction before becoming homeless. He lacked a permanent home, and relied on his voice to keep himself fed; but in January, a YouTube video made Mr. Williams a national figure, and within days the combined efforts and generosity of hundreds of donators and companies nationwide as well as the media had given him a completely new life.

Tales like this are heartwarming. But we don’t hear them often enough, nor does the story portray the reality of how life turns out for the vast majority of homeless people in the nation. It does not portray the reality of the homeless around us, in our immediate community. Just outside the cozy comfort of the University of Washington’s campus, an estimated 10,000[1] homeless people reside in the greater Seattle area (P-I Staff). These people have two things that they continually lack in common: a permanent place to call home, and a stable source of sustenance. The community relies on aid organizations and services, such as the Rising Out of the Shadows (ROOTS) program and its Friday Feast project, to serve these people and potentially resolve this tenuous problem. Both ROOTS and Friday Feast succeed in addressing short-term needs of the homeless; however, its efforts to provide them with a permanent solution for housing and food are hampered by the transitory, noncommittal nature of its services and limitations in resources. To overcome these obstacles and meaningfully alleviate the problems that the homeless face, the community, as a whole, must turn to more long-term solutions and tackle the underlying issues that cause people to be forced out onto the streets in the first place.

The need for food and the need for shelter are two of the traditionally considered basic needs of human beings. Lacking food and/or shelter is certainly physically painful: we try to avoid hunger and exposure to the elements on an instinctive level. In the often volatile weather conditions of Seattle, a healthy body and warm, dry shelter are critical, and without them the homeless often do lose their lives. Additionally, this condition is psychologically troublesome. Especially for those who fell into homelessness rather than being born into it, the fact that they can no longer sustain the most basic of needs for themselves is a crushing blow to their dignity. And even for others, the lack of guaranteed access to food and shelter represents a lack of security: the homeless live in continual uncertainty (which many people have a hard enough time accepting in their daily lives) over whether they will have enough to eat and a place to sleep. It is the ultimate form of insecurity.

When these needs are not met, people abandon other pursuits to secure them first. Those who do not have guaranteed access to food will seek out food; the same applies to those without a guaranteed shelter. A job and an income would satisfy these needs, but even ignoring the fact that it is difficult even for non-homeless people to get jobs during hard economic times, a homeless person would be more inclined to spend his or her time searching for what satisfies an immediate need. Thus the problem is self-perpetuating: a lack of food and shelter forces people to always seek out immediate food and shelter rather than work or long-term solutions, which means that they will continue to be unable to secure stable access to food and permanent shelter. The homeless find themselves stuck in a cycle that becomes very difficult to break out of.

The plight of the homeless does not stop there. Keeping contacts becomes nearly impossible when one doesn’t have a permanent address; this in turn becomes another obstacle to securing employment. The lack of shelter leaves the homeless exposed to possible violent crime, and also makes for an inability to obtain and safely store food in quantities.

It’s clear that society has a role to play in helping the homeless get back on their feet—they should not be abandoned to continue in the cycle described above. It makes sense from a utilitarian perspective: if only the homeless could break out of the perpetual cycle, not only would they be living a more stable, secure life, but society would also gain an influx of productive members. The lives of countless people would be affected.

The ROOTS center, located in the University District, is an example of a traditional attempt to alleviate the hunger and housing problem. It is run by a group of volunteers, who work to maintain an overnight shelter for young adults 365 days a year, as well as to serve a restaurant-quality meal each Friday night for anyone who shows up. ROOTS itself aims to “deliver critical services to homeless young adults and other low income persons”[2] (ROOTS Info); the mission of Friday Feast is more specific, simply attempting to provide a meal to people of all ages and, according to the volunteer coordinator I work with, operating with a no-questions-asked policy in regard to the diners[3]. Both services are used extensively: the shelter has had to come up with rules for turning down people who cannot be offered space on crowded nights, and around 150~200 people show up each week to eat at Friday Feast for a nearly full house. The Feast attracts a variety of people: from visibly exhausted, subdued folks to smiling, talkative ones, and from those wearing worn clothing to some actually dressed as if they weren’t doing too badly, it’s a diverse group that frequents the soup kitchen. But presumably they all come for the same basic reason—they could use a free meal. Homelessness affects people from every background, and the sheer number of and seeming differences between the diners that I saw illustrate that. The deficiencies in adequate food and shelter seem to be spreading to the young homeless in particular. ROOTS says that the number of youths being turned away from its shelter has increased by 1000% during the last five years, and that more young adults are “spiraling out of the foster care system and onto the streets, fleeing abusive homes and failing to find work opportunities to survive”[4] (ROOTS Info). In today’s harsh economy, teens and young adults are often unable to be fully served by societal safety nets, and with unemployment as high as it is, they usually have the hardest time getting jobs.

As hard as they may try to resolve these problems of hunger and homelessness, ROOTS shelter and Friday Feast face critical limitations in their mission. The most prominent one has to do with the type of assistance that the homeless in these situations most often need—long-term solutions with self-sustainability. This kind of aid is nearly impossible for ROOTS to give under its current structure. The shelter provides a night’s sleep and a couple meals, while Friday Feast offers one dinner and a few hours of warmth for people to stay in. Anonymity is maintained for all, and the Feast runs on a no-questions-asked basis. This sporadic assistance will make little impact in the long run. So long as these shelters and kitchens remain transitory places for people to simply drift in and out of, with unbroken anonymity and no accountability for either those helping or those being helped, they will have no effect on breaking the cycle of basic needs that many of their visitors are stuck in. In this way, the two programs’ greatest strength is also their most glaring fault: the lack of need for commitment and the simplicity that comes along with it keeps a large number of homeless people frequenting the ROOTS shelter and Friday Feast, but that same characteristic renders the programs unable to perform truly impactful service for the people.

Further complicating the issue is the disparity between the scale of the problem and the scope of the project. There are many more needy people in Seattle than ROOTS alone can possibly hope to serve, and as noted before, the organization has seen a tenfold increase in the number of people turned away by lack of room. For groups like ROOTS to provide all the service that we would like them to provide, they need resources—and public awareness. Right now, that’s not something that the homeless always get to have.

Writer Peter Marin, in his 1987 essay Helping and Hating the Homeless, talks about the misperceptions that modern Americans have come to develop about the homeless. He argues that the “margins of society” had turned from a place for the transient, who simply wanted out of the societal order temporarily or permanently, into a place that people were forced and thrown onto. According to Marin, that transition also changed the public’s mindset about the homeless; they became undesirable and alien.[5] While he eventually arrives at the conclusion that some of the inhabitants of the social margin live there because they want to, and that they should be allowed to continue to exist there, he also takes care to note that we have a responsibility to help those who are there against their will. It’s hard to get people involved, though, when their paradigms have been shaped to disregard and ignore the homeless.

What, then, can be done? For ROOTS’ programs to truly deliver the kind of long-term solutions it advocates for in its mission statement, there must be some way to handle the aforementioned commitment issue. I suspect that launching another program alongside the existing two might be the workable solution: one with the primary purpose of developing relationships with some of the homeless and establishing solutions that set them on the track to supporting themselves through cooperation with housing agencies and local businesses. The current programs provide valuable service, and perhaps most importantly, have that aspect of anonymity and non-commitment that appeals to certain clients, and should not be shut down; the new program could work alongside the others, but it should not replace them.

The resource issue then kicks in—too many homeless, not enough aid. As much as the community can fund ROOTS to do their job well, it also owes itself the responsibility of not letting people who wish to stay afloat fall to homelessness in the first place. Providing affordable housing, funding fair and effective education, and strengthening social safety nets are all policies in that vein, and they require efforts well beyond the capabilities of any single individual or group. The only way to make this happen is to increase awareness of the daily deficiencies in the lives of the homeless—the things that they must endure.

During my time at Friday Feast, I had to opportunity to talk to a man from El Salvador. He told me that he had no schooling, either there or here, and that it didn’t bother him. He was an artist, proud of his Mayan heritage and what his life had given for his heart and soul. There are thousands of people out there who resemble this man, resemble Ted Williams: people who, if they can be helped up to a place where they can independently sustain access to food and permanent shelter, will become enriching members of our society. So long as we are willing to see and be aware of the homeless, it is a goal that we can reach.


[1] Staff, P-I. “Harassing homeless now a crime in Seattle.” 12 December 2007. Seattle P-I. 29 January 2011 <http://www.seattlepi.com/local/343084_homeless12.html&gt;

[2] “ROOTS Welcome.” ROOTS Info. Shalom Zone Non-Profit Organization doing business as ROOTS Young Adult Shelter , n.d. Web. 31 Jan 2011. <http://www.rootsinfo.org/&gt;.

[3] [Blog post… name removed]. Personal interview.

[4] “ROOTS Welcome.” ROOTS Info. Shalom Zone Non-Profit Organization doing business as ROOTS Young Adult Shelter , n.d. Web. 31 Jan 2011. <http://www.rootsinfo.org/&gt;.

[5] Marin, Peter. “Helping and Hating the Homeless: The Struggle at the Margins of America.” Harper’s Magazine. (1987): Print.

4 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the Homeless

  1. The problem with homelessness in the Fort Worth area for some begins with how long individuals are allowed to stay. Salvation Army and Union Gospel shelters only allow for people to stay for 4 nights, unless you are on some sort of, “program.” What if you are not a sex offender, not on a drug convictin program or convicted of misdemeanors or felonies? You can stay at the presbyterian night shelter, “the walk in” in fort worth. Thank someone that theres a place to go while youre getting bounced around already because of divorce, or losing gainful employment, or some other extenuating reason. The problem is, as homelessness in the DFW area esclates, so will the need for larger capacities of the shelters: causing quite a large number of people to camp outside in tents, in sleeping bags out in the open, or just rolled up in some blanket on the sidewalk. Will this promote more homelessness? What about the children that are being born as a result? Did ya think homeless people wouldnt be having normal sexual relationships just because they found a bible or a church that would feed them? I say this politely, not to agitate. As the United States nears a 20 million illegal alien mark, (im not blaming illegal immigrants, they are coming to this country for a lot of the same reasons). can people in this country really be convinced that somewhere our system needs re-vamping? Can we blame it on the presidents of our country? NO! NO! NO! I dont think so…. but, if we don’t start really paying attention here in the interim (i mean, we are already have 20 million TWENTY MILLION illegals in the country, plus, our own homeless population… Can we really be convinced that somehow peoples decent paying jobs that once provided for a normalcy in living will not be lost by individuals that are coming to this country? Some stay on a college visa then stay illegally (maybe because they are broke after incurring huge college tuitions or dont want to have to go back to the country they are from, can you blame them? Nope.) people stay, simply because the United States is a pretty cool place to live… they decide to stay, and i would also if i were from somewhere else. A better way of life, the american dream. Does overcrowding cause an American who has lived here not to have a job that is being replaced by someone from somewhere else simply because of a better education, or other factors? Whats the solution? What will the future be for this country? Homelessness in this country is getting larger and larger. And were not just talking about people without a “house” so to speak. But, a clean, decent, place to stay, sleep, shower, eat, thats not a shelter, where the crime rate is not through the roof because poor people are living in the community trying to survive. Some are pushed into illegal activities? Dont think its true?This is not a sympathy trip for the homeless. Not everyone that lives in a homeless shelter WANTS to live in a homeless shelter. Some people live there, typically the larger numbers are pre-dominantly male with a smaller amount of the population female. The females are forced into prostitution or peddling illegal drugs, and then they show up in the fort worth “mugly shot” newspaper to be “embarassed” as what most people think why this paper even exists. Interestingly enough, most of the photos dont seem to be coming from the police department, or do they? Some pictures show individuals pictures that say, “speeding ticket”. I have never heard of anyone being arrested for a speeding ticket, but, i could be wrong (unless they had previous warrants of course) Are these publications helping the individuals? Or can your local, “JOHN” as they say, now pick up the mugly shot magazine and see what person in “prostitute corner they want to pick up? I think in the long run, it might promote vigilante-ism. It places a distrust for homeless people in law enforcement, which creates a potentially bigger problem in the long haul, my opinion anyway. How can Fort Worth Texas, and other cities shrink the number of homeless, besides just saying, “get a job” when the communities a-typically do not want to hire, “homeless individuals?” Try not to give a pat answer. John Steven grissom – fort worth TEXAS USA.

    • Hi John. I agree with your points–a lot of the current ‘solutions’ out there aren’t really true solutions, and homelessness does create a host of other issues. But to address some of the questions you pose:

      I think that you entertained the possibility that the undocumented population displaces American citizens from jobs and into homelessness. (I do recognize that you aren’t trying to put the blame on them.) Although, I’m really not sure if this is a valid dynamic. Many undocumented workers take jobs that most Americans would not like to perform. Granted, if one was homeless and desperate for work this wouldn’t be as problematic, but I don’t know that employers would be more inclined to hire an undocumented resident over a homeless individual, especially with the high risk of doing so nowadays. As for the point of education, by the simple virtue of being undocumented, people cannot really take advantage of that education to get themselves better jobs. So I think this wouldn’t be a concern.

      You’re right though, overcrowding is and will continue to be an issue until something’s done. I’m just gonna go ahead and say it–the clearest way that I see this is simply to provide undocumented residents with some path to citizenship. I know that a lot of people are concerned that this will exacerbate unemployment. Then again, do the number of jobs available somehow shrink when this happens? There will be a little pushout effect, of course. But in the long run, I think that legalizing undocumented residents will result in enough growth to resolve the overcrowding phenomenon.

      Now the big one. How do we shrink the number of homeless? This probably deserves a much more thoughtful answer than the one I’m about to attempt to work out. First let me say this: we have to recognize that there are all kinds of homeless out there in regard to their outlook on work. Some are actively looking for a job. Others are what economists call “discouraged workers”. Still others really do not wish to work for a little while (or a long while, as that may be the case), maybe because of a recent trauma, or maybe just to be away from everything for a minute. I’m stealing an idea from Peter Marin as I say this, but I think all these people need society to accept them and help them to achieve what they’re looking for.

      A bit of a detour there. But at the end of the day, the key to solving the homeless ‘problem’, at least for those who still want to get back into the working class, is still jobs. The issues arise when we can’t provide these jobs to them. The most fundamental thing we can do to make this happen is change society’s perception of the homeless. You mention it at the end–employers often don’t want to hire the homeless. Why? They’re not innately bad people. Until America can get back to its way of thinking from the 60s and before–when the homeless were not pariahs pushed out to the edge, but an accepted part of society who just chose to be there and were allowed to exist there, before America began to drive these people away–this problem cannot be solved. We’ll need to fix our economy, but we’ll also have to fix our paradigm.

      I don’t know if that’s what you would consider a ‘pat answer’, and if it is then I apologize for not being able to give something more satisfactory. The truth is, this is something that I still have to give a lot more thought to. Hopefully it gives us all somewhere to start from.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Best,

      Jung

  2. Thanks for the reply great points that you made by the way. I initially like the idea of somehow finding a way for a path to citizenship for the illegals; however, President Obama has already introduced a plan adressing this issue and it failed(didnt receive the votes it needed because of the longevity of the bigger picture. Credit to the current administration for making a valiant effort to satisfy the concerns that our country is having towards illegal immigration across the board. Amen? I had read a past comment about one of the concerns for legalizing illegals or making a way for them to attain legal status…(and i understand why people living in our borders want to become citizens COMPLETELY) the concern was that if we start making illegals legal, then the already stacked populations on our borders (Mexico/canada) would/might flow into our country to become citizens en-masse… which would: A. create more of a potential headache, than just allowing a senate bill to not pass. I say this respectfully, there is no “easy fix” for this. There is no “slap on a band-aid” solution. This country is however, known as the land of opportunity, we advertise it. The statue of liberty declares, “send us your sick and poor”.
    Homelessness and employment: This is also an AGE issue, not just homelessness. Many people who reach their 40s are not finding the “same” type of pay that they may have once found previously. The concern is not just only finding employment, but employment that matches or equals their previous skills/qualifications so that they will not have to receive supplemental government benefits to get to the level of income/quality/life style that they were once accustomed to. CONTINUING PERSONAL EDUCATION can be extremely beneficial at any age, but, in basic economics, CHEAPER LABOR almost ALWAYS means bigger benefits to the employer….and my friend, that IS why some Americans are losing jobs to illegal immigrants…(LARGER PROFITS) not only because illegal immigrants are taking jobs that Americans will NOT do as you mentioned. Although i have heard that argument myself by illegal immigrants here in fort worth. If i understand correctly, (im not sure if it is true or not, it seems pretty radical) Texas (through Austin) currently has an “act” as it is called, (a poster that i have seen in the presbyterian night shelter walk in where i stay here in fort worth TEXAS) that allows individuals to receive benefits from the government even if they are un-documented, have no identification, no school records, no history whatsoever of medical attention, or live in places that have no address, (such as the streets) etc, etc. (i just saw this last night, and will verify it in the next few days) This not only might pose a problem to economics, and encourage illegals under the guise of “CAPiTALISM” to come to this country (and not to mention a NATIONAL SECURITY NIGHTMARE) illegally, (im sure it might be good for economics in a sense, but also is in many ways opening back the door to a “modern day slavery” by companies hiring un-documented illegal immigrants for less than fair wages, this is what is happening in some 3rd world countries currently) and also poses health risks to the general public. (in my opinion). Third world diseases, STDS, etc…. that have mostly been eradicated by the United States modern medicines are finding their way back into our society, and are going UN-documented, which if UN-addressed in the future, might be a huge problem. Keeping Americans gainfully employed and out of shelters and out of “campsites and on the streets” means, a healthier general public, a flourishing America for the future, and less of a National security risk…. in my opinion. Comments, ideas? John Steven grissom- Fort Worth Texas USA. Stevegtexas@aol.com

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