From my in-progress book on homelessness.
I went to a series of panels on February 25, 2016 about homeless youth, at The Leonardo Museum. I learned a lot, but I also walked away feeling unsatisfied and disappointed with the powers that be. There are many places I could begin, and many things I could talk about, but I will try to streamline this article to hit on the main points that trouble me.
It’s not unreasonable to say that the panel was geared towards a specific end goal. The goal to me seemed to be that of the attitude that, “We have solved the issue.” In other words, the panels wanted to assure us that we have solved youth homelessness, because we have all of these systems in place that will make sure that homeless youth are treated respectfully, and can find a way out of their dire circumstances, among other necessary things.
Not to sound cynical, but such a presentation holds little meaning and value for me, and I have little faith in a system like that. It holds little meaning because I have been a critical observer from outside the system for a long time now, for many years. I have struggled to help, and have had to do it through fringe organizations (with stronger ethics and a stronger core) and by consulting my own head and resources, with no support from the authorities and the very organizations that give talks like this. This to me immediately signals an important point that must be addressed and expounded upon.
The first speaker was very articulate and impassioned, and they asked good questions at the end of the event that were alarming but necessary. He was in fact someone who’d struggled with homelessness himself. I have respect for this individual’s story. What I am uneasy on is the easygoing presentation. I remember asking my questions when he gave the opportunity, which was essentially, what can I do to help the homeless? I cited a recent instance where I knew I couldn’t give a man housing because I couldn’t let him live with me, but I was able to give him food. The speaker immediately interpreted my question and response as coming from a place of fear and stereotype, among other things. This struck me as odd for someone who was offering a new/counter perspective: Why would they immediately assume that an inquisitive person (and writer/philosopher such as myself) would immediately jump to stereotypes when dealing with my encounters with the homeless? This to me represents the divide that exists between those who are the homeless, those who serve the homeless in some high-ranking/esteemed position, and those who are excluded from serving others for various reasons and/or stand on the outside of the system and critique it from that point.
One of the things that made Friedrich Nietzsche so great was that he was willing to throw away the defunct idols, the pointless and empty philosophical mummies. This is an approach that has stuck with me for a long time in my mode of analysis and discourse, ever since I studied this approach, and I must admit that to me, the system in place that I observed at this event is just that: a system, full of cracks in the foundation, full of infection. As an outsider, I see institutionalization, a word I don’t use lightly: I see people offering intellectual and detached responses to a real, pervading, and all-too-human problem that is staring us right in the face and demanding our attention. I don’t see anyone on the ground level, because this type of work has become so very institutionalized. By that, I mean the act of being able to help the homeless has become attached and bound up with ideas of, are you a successful person, are you a powerful person, are you a person of influence, etc. In work like this, I would think this wouldn’t be the most important thing, but integrity and passion and the desire to help and be compassionate. This is one of the things that made me uncomfortable about the final question of the speaker: His question dared to imply that ethics are relative, and while this might be true in a practical sense, as we all come from a subjective background that will contradict what exists outside of us and will be at odds with society, this probably shouldn’t be true in a normative sense. Indeed, the Postmodern condition has stripped us of any opportunity to stabilize ourselves.
The foundation, in other words, for this kind of work is not there, because it is filled with questionable ideology and is set up like any other business of operation.
I had a strong negative reaction to the discussion of “survival sex.” Basically, the argument went like this: Kids become trafficked because they know their only commodity is their body. This disturbed me greatly. I understand it is the traffickers that are indoctrinating victims into believing this, but I’m not sure I was hearing a lot about the importance of essentialism and the underlying essence to a person, the importance of the value of a human life, an emphasis on the mind and its powers, or even a theological emphasis on the soul. These kids have a purpose in life, a meaning and value, and that is generally not to sell their bodies, but to be rational and critical agents in a difficult world. I find this mentality, this “survival sex mentality,” a dangerous way to look at the situation, and one that doesn’t help. It is something that needs to be addressed.
Speaking of exploitation: I’m not seeing a lot of work done to teach homeless kids what their “rights” are. This is an important question. It seems that using our very own language, we have funneled kids into being criminals. While it was addressed that this is the wrong way to approach the kids (which I agree with), it all still seems built into the rhetoric in which we talk about them. I am referring specifically to the second panel, where they talked about legal issues involving street youth. Much of what was discussed was how hard it is to get out of legal trouble once you are in it, as it snowballs: A misdemeanor can quickly become a felony, which can make it impossible for you to find a place to live.
These are just my immediate, intuitive, most apparent thoughts on this event, though there is much more work I can do and plan on doing. But I maintain my core thesis, that the foundation is unstable. I don’t say this simply because my experience has been as an outsider, an outside observer: I say this because the way in which this event was set up is still hierarchical, rather than embodying the rhizome, as was preferred in one of the talks. I am seeing some success stories, as was implicated by the first speaker, but it’s not representative of what the situation really is: call them unintentional lies by the powerful, if you will. We are not addressing the fears that are at stake, we are not addressing the fears that are involved in this very human experience of homelessness. Why are organizations and adults who are not kids deciding the fate of homeless youth? These are important questions, and this is the problem I have with the foundation: This is what I see to be a looming crack in the foundation: The fact that hierarchy still exists, our prejudices are still apparent, maybe even more apparent, in this line of work. Too much work is put to make the art of helping the homeless youth “seem” professional and streamlined, seem detached. When we haven’t taken into account the impact that neglect and detachment has on this population.
I am working outside of the system because that’s where I believe I can see the most clearly. This might mean I seem like a naïve homeless service provider/vigilante (just kidding) in the eyes of the hierarchy, but that is ultimately irrelevant. The problem is that we are not confronting what is really in front of us: Exploitation, abuse, neglect, loneliness, mental illness, hierarchy, and the like. I don’t think that my experiences of being siphoned off to the side of the system repeatedly and forcefully (even though I choose it also) is chiefly incidental or merely my own prejudice. I believe it is a reflection of how this system works and operates, and of the many cracks in the foundation that need to be pointed out and filled in, before the inevitable collapse. Meaning, I see this as a real issue, one that I live with every day, like knowing a train is quickly approaching you and you are going to get hit. This is the experience every day for me: It’s a real thing. It doesn’t go away just because we can talk efficiently and put on a stage production. Someone can tell me all day about how I need to get the stories of others, but until you experience the walls that are in place for yourself and that separate you from the other interacting parties, such as the homeless, you know how hard this is.
Indeed: The foundation is weak, and we must do better.