From my in-progress book on homelessness …
On August 17, 2015, I attended a homeless commission meeting, the goal of the commission of which is to confront the issue of homelessness in Salt Lake City. I am going to write about it from a chiefly autobiographical perspective.
It was an interesting meeting, to say the least. The commission has structured itself around the idea that statistics will guide policy decisions, and so will evidence. Anecdotal evidence/stories, however, will not be considered as much for the policy decisions, if at all.
From what I understood about the meeting, some important decisions have already been made, and I must confess I am not sure what decisions those are at this point, but will find out soon enough, I imagine.
I share, with some of the other members of the commission, a fear that we are not looking at this issue long-term. For instance, we may be able to take care of the situation temporarily, but how will we be able to be sure that we have been able to curb homelessness long-term? I would assume that we cannot, but that this is important to keep in mind with any policy decision, especially one that impacts a population such as the homeless population, a population that has been described as being very vulnerable.
I would add, however, that that is the whole issue behind making any decision. We pretty much never know the long-term consequences. But if I learned anything in this commission, it is the idea that too often, such as when it comes to making decisions that will affect the homeless, we forget sometimes that the issue is long-term, and we want quick solutions. Not necessarily easy solutions, but quick solutions, with the assumption that the problem will be solved permanently. This is naturally a faulty assumption, and I appreciate that this was brought up in the meeting.
As mentioned before, the commission views empirical evidence as the most important (and perhaps only important) piece in making policy decisions. The numbers will essentially tell us what to do. I don’t have a problem with this in the sense that it seeks to remain goal-oriented (the numbers will inform the goals), and keep everyone accountable, but as I commented on the comment card at the meeting, it would seem to me that we should not completely disregard both the emotional aspect of decision-making and the anecdotal evidence that can be provided by those who are homeless themselves.
As a side note, this is the false dichotomy that has been brought up in philosophical debates: Do we trust the emotions, or do we trust reason/experience? Do we side with Hume and say that reason is a slave to our emotions/passions, or do we side with Socrates/Plato and say that reason should prevail over our emotions? I’m bringing this up because, while I’m not sure if anything can come from this observation, it’s important to be aware of the emotions that drive our decisions, as they aren’t pointless, and it’s important to narrate what happens and continues to happen with the homeless (as I am trying to do). I bring this up for one simple reason (though there might be other good reasons): To humanize the situation. This is not to say that approaching the problem of homelessness from a statistical perspective is wrong, but I have reason to believe that it might be limiting the scope that anecdotal evidence can provide and does provide.
Personal ideology aside, I think it’s also important to mention that I didn’t really see much advocacy at the meeting. This might be a consequence of the logic-oriented approach of the commission, but I didn’t hear very many stories of success, or stories about what the commission has done right (though in all fairness, this might be because it’s too soon to tell, the data isn’t completely in, and solutions are still being worked out). This is also a personal conviction, but relevant nonetheless: I don’t understand why it is merely leaders of organizations who are making policy decisions that will impact the homeless, with little emphasis on the perspective of the homeless themselves (or so it seems to me at least).
This is important when considering what I was told about the policy surrounding the policing in downtown Salt Lake. The goal is to provide law enforcement, but not at the expense of the homeless population. In other words, it was suggested that the policy guiding the behavior of the cops downtown is the idea that the officers must enforce the law whilst also maintaining peace with the homeless population and working to bridge the gap (and consequences of such a gap, namely anti-authority stances by the homeless themselves, and the fear instilled) between authority figures and the homeless.
This sounds good as a philosophy to employ, and is an important and progressive commitment to make. My fear, however, is that this is much easier said than done. I don’t have enough evidence to say point-blank that this isn’t possible in Salt Lake City, but from a philosophical perspective, I would have to say that the authority figures (such as the cops) are coming from a place of power, part of which stems from their ability and capacity to enforce the law, while the homeless, and the rights of the homeless, are uncertain and unclear, and not often asserted. This is only coming from what I have experienced while trying to help this population, but I have seen enough to warrant suspicion that the police will automatically assert this philosophy, of building trust with the homeless population. I think this goal will be especially difficult to achieve when considering that the homeless themselves might have feelings of doubt about the police and the authority figures that are supposed to serve them, because it has been my experience that the homeless are either unaware of their rights, they cannot assert their rights, or even at times, do not have rights.
I’m mentioning this because this is the advocacy piece. I am not going to overassert my suspicion of not having more homeless people present at the meeting to voice their opinions, but I am going to present it as a potential problem when making policy decisions. As I see it, while this commission is well-intentioned and is probably on a great path, everything can’t be reduced to numbers, and advocacy for the homeless population themselves and the homeless as they are must be brought to the forefront.
As a side note, I was touched by an anecdote of a street kid who’d gotten off the streets because he was part of a program that actually worked, that actually helped him. Apparently, the kid was homeless, and he couldn’t get a job because he didn’t have a birth certificate. But it turned out that an organization was able to help get the birth certificate so he could then get a driver’s license, to then get a job, and apparently, he’s going to college now and is in a steady position in life, living the American dream, as they say. As someone who is burnt-out from what I consider to be troubling methods of many organizations I have encountered, it is reassuring to hear that a fellow human being did not fall through the cracks and was served appropriately, and is now on his way to become a contributing member of society, a fulfilled individual, and a happy and thriving citizen in the community.
There were many points of contention in the meeting. There were battling ideologies and conflicts of interest. One member kept bringing up the issue of “ends” and “means to ends.” I currently don’t know enough about the philosophy behind this commission to say with certainty what this means, but I can say philosophically speaking and with a little intuition, that it sounds like the commission is taking a very utilitarian stance/approach to helping the homeless. In other words, they want to do the most good for the biggest number of people. When it comes to this situation, I think Kant’s deontological ethics is mostly irrelevant, though I would note that if indeed, I am understanding this correctly and the goal of the commission is to be mostly utilitarian, it would be important to bring up the reality that it’s very difficult to define “what is good for the largest number of people.” Does this mean we count ourselves as being successful if we get a certain number of people off the streets, or is it much more nuanced than that? As a side note, this is a problem I have with the statistical approach, because it leaves out the nuances that exist in this situation (of helping the homeless).
Regardless, it’s a start.
I think one important point that is crucial is that this commission is very much concerned with preventing homelessness in the first place, which seems humane, and uses common sense. One person brought up the perspective of how the goal should be to even eliminate shelter use. This is an important point that I agree with: Why do we need shelters in the first place? I don’t have an answer to that complicated question (other than that housing is just too expensive for some people), but I think it’s worth bringing up the point that certainly in an ideal society, we wouldn’t need shelters at all, and while that ideal society is unrealistic, it doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it.
In conclusion, how does this help me understand homelessness in general, and my place in the community as a person who wants to alleviate homelessness? It’s clear that there is a lot of nuance and complexity, but that doesn’t mean I can’t assert a few things.
First off, the obvious: It’s important we streamline work by importing statistical and empirical data, but we can’t forget that that data has to still be interpreted (with some abstraction, whether ethical or philosophical), and that getting stories is important for understanding the homeless population and the homeless experience. That is what I still seek to do with my writing and actions and speech, and will continue to do. I acknowledge that indeed, telling stories of the homeless probably doesn’t get a person stable housing … but it at least reveals the complexities that surround the lives of the homeless, and humanizes a difficult and often misunderstood situation.
Second, I would just say that in this case I am generally understanding homelessness from a bureaucratic perspective, rather than my traditional and intensely philosophical and autobiographical mode. Foucault is relevant here. Foucault says that psychiatry is a field that uses reason to talk about insanity, and thus excludes the perspective of the mentally ill. The same principle would apply here, it would seem: People with privilege, power, authority, and the ability and capacity to make important decisions about the homeless population were indeed making decisions about the homeless, at the exclusion of the homeless; this operates off the implicit assumption that we actually know what is best for the homeless. Foucault would never go so far as to say this is wrong, but he would point it out as a potential problem. I would agree with that line of reasoning. I think that people who are in a position to help those less fortunate do indeed need to make policy decisions that will affect a vulnerable population, but at some point, we have to include the homeless as part of that discussion and dialogue (though I don’t know where that would be; this also doesn’t mean this isn’t happening, though I can say with certainty that I didn’t see this happening here, at the meeting). My perspective is limited, but I stand by this notion, as it seems to me that there is a potential problem with making decisions for other people, about other people, even if it is governmental and bureaucratic, and well-intentioned.