Homeless Shelters as Band-Aids: Housing Is a Human Right

woman holding sign at protest: Housing Is a Human RightFrom the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 25:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

In an era of increasing economic inequality, why are cities not addressing the structural issues that cause people to be without homes? Why waste energy building more homeless shelters if the primary reason for homelessness is economic inequality? Why not fix the economic issues, first?

It Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

I realize I am being very simple, but if just these three issues were addressed, it would be an enormous start and it just might change everything.

  1. People are paid a living wage
  2. Healthcare is universal
  3. Affordable housing is available

I am pretty sure that the systems which are in place are designed to keep poor people in their place rather than empowering people on any level at all. Homeless shelters are social control agencies, typically.

I live in an area where the dominant group is very “proud” to live here. It is perceived to be “paradise on earth.” There is a lot of natural beauty. But there also is a lot of suffering.

If anyone has ever had the trauma of being without a home, getting into a homeless shelter is no easy matter. And the idea that it is paradise here or anywhere is kind of a moot point.

Keep in mind, I am not advocating that shelters be taken away from people, but I am saying that shelters do not address the major structural problems of economic inequality, and in fact, seem to reproduce the inequality instead.

To get into the shelter, you have to be at the right place at the right time. And you are at the staff’s mercy their perceptions and their value systems and often their religious agendas impact and shape your experience.

Keeping You in the “System”

There are many barriers set up at the shelters as well. For example, many shelters will not accept a person who is on certain medication, has “liquor on their breath” or has a criminal record – and on and on it goes.

Homeless-kids-in-shelterAnd if you are “lucky” enough to get in, you still have to deal with often very rigid rules, exposure to diseases/violence, and staff who might be predators, sexually or otherwise. There are so many emotional pieces to deal with when trying to get into a homeless shelter, because people only go there as a last resort. Shame is huge. We internalize the larger societal ideas about our value, which is tied to our material worth.

Grief, loss, pain and the realization that there is really no “safe space” in the world, is awful.  Losing one’s home or not having a home is deeply emotional, as we are taught to believe that homes provide nurturing, safety and love.

The systems in place are designed for poor people to fail, and this includes homeless shelters as a general rule. People have agency but agency is constrained by social location.

I notice that when people wind up in homeless shelters, at least in the area where I live, they rarely escape the “system.” Poor people will move back and forth between the criminal “justice” (just us) system, the mental health system, shelters, etc. Some people might say it is because they have not worked hard enough or tried hard enough, or even that “they” have not internalized the right middle-class values to create a sense of hope or redefine the narrative; or whatever other individualistic narrative or culture of poverty argument one might put on an economically-oppressed person.

Homeless shelters, while “better than nothing,” are band-aids, and they do not address the core issues that cause people to become homeless.”

Moving backward: A couple of years ago, many people in the town where I live resisted the addition of a new homeless shelter, and this involved an intense battle that was at its origin about values. Some locals did not want the homeless shelter near their large old Victorian homes. Many classist statements were made which will be explored in another blog.  The two camps were both guilty of classism: the conservative camp and the liberal camp.

The point of this blog, though, is to introduce the idea that homeless shelters, while “better than nothing,” are band-aids, and they do not address the core issues that cause people to become homeless. If I want to apply the human rights doctrine above, I would argue that the United States is in violation of economic human rights, because so many people are without adequate housing and healthcare and hope as we close 2017.

I also wonder why these issues are not addressed in a more comprehensive manner. However, I believe that a lot of it has to do with the fact that people with privilege, status, power and titles, who own big homes, more than one home, etc. benefit from people being disenfranchised and disempowered, or at least they think they do.

They benefit from the system the way that it is. They are the ones who employ people and pay them poorly, and profit from high rents. And this is why they see the area where I live as paradise rather than hell.

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