All posts by John

Homeless Teaching Activity

Throughout this course, we have sought to answer five central questions:

Question #1: What is life like for the hungry,

the homeless, and the near-homeless?

Question #2: How many homeless and near-homeless are there?

Question #3: What are the major and minor

causes of homelessness and hunger?

Question #4: What are individuals, small organizations,

and governments doing to help?  What can they do to help?

Question #5: What does it take to solve this problem?

We were asked to bring the information that we had learned in this course, framed by these questions, and share it with members of our communities. Another student and I worked together to create a presentation for other students and community members that we knew. We worked to choose a topic that would be applicable to the audience and wouldn’t require any previous knowledge except casual encounters with the homeless. For this reason, we sought to explain the major and minor causes of homelessness. A topic that would likely dispel lots of preconceptions about homelessness and would give them the tools they need to address homelessness more in the future.

To address the causes, we started with a history beginning in 1950. Then we transitioned to modern-day causes. We were intentional in explaining how a series of seemingly unrelated causes formed the homeless crisis that see (or often don’t see) today. This conversation focused on the interconnected effects of income-inequality, lack of affordable housing, economic recessions, and anti-homeless legislation generate homelessness and how personal, social, and societal factors create the “tattered safety net”.

The presentation was followed by a discussion which was incredible! Audience members brought up topics ranging from basic assumptions of why we haven’t solved the crisis to cogent arguments against purely systemic approaches to the homeless crisis. I learned a lot in these discussions and my view of the role of artists in movements evolved. I was impressed at the group’s ability to respectfully disagree with other members and their ability to persuade other members.

As the discussion continued, it was clearly the most valuable part of the activity. Participants even brought up the Broken Window Theory in New York and its effects on the treatment of the homeless and impoverished communities. We only ended the discussion after I and some audience members needed to leave for meetings scheduled afterwards. I would be interested to see how this event would go if done again with a larger audience and a more refined presentation.

NGO’s Can’t Solve Homelessness On Their Own

Throughout this course, we have approached the issues of poverty and homelessness progressively. First, we explored the data and economic systems that produce homelessness, studied the first hand experiences, analyzed the U. S’s unproductive governmental and private approaches to it, and finally reviewed solutions. Of the effective solutions we studied, we saw few examples of them being employed domestically. Among the best was an organization on the east coast. They did not fully embrace the concepts of housing first; rather they adapted the existing progressive housing model to offer services to more people on the bottom end and offer obtainable permanent housing at the top.

While studying an organization that was employing more efficacious approaches to reducing homelessness was encouraging, their finances weren’t. Lacking any committed government support, this private NGO offered its services at a $180,000 annual deficit with no stated plan for making up the difference. Admittedly, the data available to us on these numbers was scarce, but the message was clear. If one of the most successful models of homeless aid in the U.S ran on a $180,000 deficit to serve a proportionally small amount of the population, then private solutions to homeless are likely not enough to solve this problem. While not a revolutionary conclusion, understanding that a problem of this scale can’t be solved by private organizations funded by inconsistent tax dollars and small, private donations is an important realization. This gives us another tool to argue against rhetoric that say that this is an issue for NGO’s and not for government.

Taking Suggestions: How to Sustainably Approach Activism

Writing this piece was especially difficult. I’m exhausted from being engaged. I’ve written essays, applied for a grant, and helped two friends navigate emotional crises today: all activities that require you to be engaged. Yet, this level of exhaustion doesn’t compare to what I expect many people feel who are deeply involved in activism.

When you dedicate your life to addressing some of our society’s biggest issues, how do you do so sustainably? How do you avoid burnout or prevent yourself from becoming detached? I would guess that the answer isn’t simple and is likely deeply personal. Searching for the answer is something I’ll likely do across my education and my life. Is there philosophy on this? Are there people who study sustainability in activism? When everything feels like a crisis, how do you survive? How can you justify even the slightest conveniences or luxuries when those resources could have fed a hungry child? I can’t say that giving up your privilege is the answer but enjoying your privilege without concern for others isn’t the answer either. The closest answer I’ve come to is Adam Smith’s Dialectical Wisdom. A concept that I am still working to understand and feel unqualified to explain.

Taking suggestions at

Is Generational Memory a Hurdle to Successful Civil Rights Movements?

This week’s discussions focused on various histories of American homelessness. This historical lens can be rather disheartening. Despite there being notable periods in American homelessness, our overarching approach has been cruel and consistently failed to fix homelessness since before our nation was formed. This begs the question: what does it take to make effective change of attitudes and policies? In thinking about this question, I start to think about my own community.

I live in the Johnston Community. A group of students at the University who design their own majors and choose to live in an intentional, learning community. Many of our conversations center around social justice and its place in our community. The topics lately have included transgender persons and racism. So many times, students have identified these problems (and problems of the garden-variety) in our community and worked passionately to solve them. Yet, time after time, their efforts fail.

Some fail because the student burns out, some because there wasn’t enough support, and some because they weren’t well planned. Though, the ones that survive these deaths, rarely survive our short institutional memory. The leaders of change leave, and often, the change leaves with them. Is this hurdle of short institutional memory applicable to societal change? What role does generational memory play in the success or failure of civil rights movements. Subsequently, what does it take for a movement to be remembered to and outlive its leaders?

I hope as we continue to explore the realities of hunger and homelessness in America, that we find approaches that have been effective. Nearly as important, I hope that we learn how to create change that persists.

A Data-Driven Overview of Homelessness in Early America

Lately, I’ve been reading Down and Out, on the Road. The book begins with an incredible data driven analysis of homelessness in America beginning before the formation of the U.S. The author, Kusmer, highlights how persistent the issue of homelessness is and tracks the public attitudes to it. Kusmer links much of the early homelessness to indentured servitude.

America was marketed as the land of infinite opportunity. Unlimited land and resources meant anyone could go and start anew. To finance their trips, many members of the lower-classes agreed to become indentured servants – working for a set time once they arrived. Citing diminishing upward-mobility after 1800, Kusmer highlights the high rate of homelessness and public assistance needed by previous indentured servants.

The attitudes and historical approaches to homeless populations was perhaps the most interesting part of the book. Kusmer argues that in the early part of American history, much of the public’s view of the homeless was informed by Protestantism. The emphasis on work-ethic lead people to have harsh views of the homeless. Although in some places, there was some form of public assistance, many areas had policies to drive the homeless out.

The lack of evolution in our ideas surrounding homelessness is shocking. Following the formation of the United States, the approaches to homelessness became very similar to what we see today. Large charitable organizations were setup to offer assistance to the poor. While some organizations gave indiscriminately, many delineated between the deserving and undeserving poor. The ideology of making homelessness uncomfortable as to encourage them to better themselves existed then and was in full swing. Through the decades, many saw that the issue did not improve, yet no national adjustment to our approach appeared. This is likely due, in part, to the idea that homelessness is an unsolvable issue. Kusmer identified a number of instances in which cities, officials, and citizens expressed this point of view.

For anyone looking for an in-depth, data driven overview of homelessness, how they were viewed by the public, and the assistance efforts, Kusmer’s Down and Out, on the Road is an excellent resource with a massive index of supporting data.

The Homeless are Thieves

My building was recently broken into. Among the things stolen were a few bikes – including my own – and some sound equipment. As I went through my week, a few people asked about it and I mentioned it to a few friends and family members. When I told them about it, I was frequently met with a term that I hadn’t encountered until I moved to California – transient. Person after person immediately blamed the theft on “transients” with self-assured disgust.

The first time I heard someone refer to the homeless as transients, it felt hateful, like a slur. As I have become more established in California, I hear the term more often: supposedly synonymous with homeless. Even amongst police or the experts we have encountered through this course on homelessness, it seems to be part of the vernacular. Still, something about it strikes me wrong. Transient. It feels dehumanizing. If the word grants them any humanity, it seems to mark the homeless as other, therefore none of my concern so long as they leave or are invisible. Alternatively, it might say they’re other and dangerous.

Regardless of what “transient” means, many of these people, with no context, were sure that the homeless were the criminals responsible. In the 70’s and especially into the 90’s, our society seemed to lay the blame of homeless on the individual, but what created the image of these people as criminals?

Of course, the security footage showed three men leaving in their car and I have no way of knowing if they were homeless or not. I’m not even trying to argue that this idea of the homeless, or apparently transients, isn’t rooted in some amount of truth. I’m simply interested in understanding where this image of thievery and violence came from.

The Disappointing Lack of Effective National Efforts to Help the Homeless

In the past few weeks, we have met with a slew of community experts on homelessness. Largely people on the front lines working with the homeless, advocacy, and data collection. A common thread amongst all these experts is that they are involved in local, isolated efforts. Short of the national effort to house homeless veterans under the Obama administration, there seems to be little being done nationally that is noteworthy. Nothing has come close to meeting the needs of the existing population or effectively begun to address the systemic drivers of homelessness. This observation is likely influenced by the fact that we can only meet those who are near, available over the phone, and are willing to donate their time.

Despite this, I’ve been unimpressed by the national efforts that we’ve read about. The issue seems to be the responsibility of the city or county at best. Even the HUD requirement to do homeless counts every two years fails to provide counties with guidelines that create useful data nationally. Many of the trends in the national data can be chalked up to issues with disparate methodology. I question whether this is a symptom of historical views of the homeless. People began to see homelessness as a personal failing starting in the late 70’s. Is homelessness not being addressed on an effective level nationally because of our cultural views of the homeless?

Would better data collection drive more appropriate action? Is there any precedent to suggest that having reliable data drives action on the national level? Some of the best homeless counts are conducted by Applied Survey Research (ASR). What does it cost to perform a count of this caliber? Would that amount pose a financial burden to a significant number of counties?

Addressing the Critiques of Help for the Homeless

In the past week, class turned away from readings, media, and discussion and focused on meeting the experts. We met members of the community that serve as the front-line for programs that target the homeless and those who run these organizations. In meeting these people, the narrative that I was drawing from the class changed dramatically. Up to this point, our conversations focused on the ways systems force people to homelessness and keep them there. Many of the homeless people we studied were examples of individuals that were just like us; only they had fallen on hard times and were now homeless. Then, experts brought us stories of how, often, the homeless were refusing services offered to them. There was a rough average of 70+ contacts before someone accepted services. For me, this change in narrative reemphasized the question, why are we helping people who don’t want it?

I don’t think this is a question that should be ignored, whether through willful ignorance or otherwise. If we are going to alleviate the plight of the homeless, we must address the valid – or at least seemingly valid – questions that many conservatives and others hold. To begin to explore this question, I want to understand why the homeless are apprehensive to accept services. Is denial of services rooted in reason and/or mental health issues? If so, then we have yet another systemic problem: it’s our cross to bear, not solely theirs.

Addressing the main question, why are we helping people who don’t want it, is important for another reason. This line of thinking is used to discredit the factual, sensible argument that it is cheaper to help these people than to pay for policing and hospitalization of them. A plethora of articles tell us to “stop wasting money on the homeless”, encouraging people to vote against measures that would in truth save the taxpayers money. Bleeding hearts aside, it’s just good business to help the homeless.

Throughout my education, I have tried to lend focus and credence to the opinions and perspectives that seem to get lost in the liberal arts. At the very least, opinions that get lost here. I feel it’s important to focus on these individuals because they matter. Their opinions sway the way we, as a nation, address issues big and small. Often there is validity in their concerns. To ignore them is to ignore their rightful place in this country and to possibly sacrifice the success of your own goals. I try to apply this same thinking to the issues and politics of homelessness. Without recognizing and addressing the concerns of others, we risk the success and sustainability of any effort made to help the homeless.

I Get Why People Hate The Homeless

In class this week, we further explored the realities of homelessness through several readings, a film, and an exercise. These same mediums gave us a glimpse into the, at times shocking, lengths that people will go to prevent anything that might “attract” the homeless to their communities. While the realities – read hardships – of the homeless were on a scale of their own, what interested me far more were the reactions of the politicians, community members, and neighbors to the homeless. Specifically, what interested me is why I thought they stood out to me.

Objectively, the way people characterized and treated the homeless was horrifying; some calling these people a waste of space and human life. Others campaigned ferociously against the creation of affordable housing units in their neighborhoods or worked feverishly to criminalize the feeding of the homeless on whatever grounds possible. Even more disgusting, was that one attempt to criminalize the feeding of the homeless was predicated on “concern” that these homeless persons would contract a food-borne illness. An argument that may seem reasonable until you consider the testimony of experts that insisted the dangers posed by possible food-borne illness were insignificant compared to that of malnutrition and starvation.

I thought this interested me because I was seeing a level of hate and dehumanization that was mind-boggling. It seemed these people lacked such a basic sense of humanity, that they could have easily become dehumanized to me. How could someone have so little basic empathy for another human-being? A manner of thinking that seems increasingly popular, especially amongst the left. After some reflection, I realized that it actually interested me because I understood how one could come to see people this way.

Poverty is acceptable and a condition that deserves our sympathy if you’re from a developing country where resources are scarce, and safety is all-but guaranteed. Why else would I willingly donate to UNICEF out of my – at best – 10-hour a week, minimum wage check? But when you’re poor in the land of opportunity, why should I care? There are accessible social services at every corner – at least that is something believed in the past. Why should I care especially if caring might come at the cost of my property value or serve as a very uncomfortable reminder that my success is hardly the sole product of my own grit and determination. To be clear, I don’t nor have I ever believed that the homeless were a “waste of space and a human life”. I simply understand the aversion to them. The desire to avoid that uncomfortable truth and the persistent reminder that I sleep in a warm, safe room, spend money at starbucks, and type this blog post on a luxury laptop when there are people sleeping in the rain at the park across the street.

To fully address Hunger and Homelessness, especially for myself, I believe that I must engage in deep self-reflection about my own attitudes about the homeless and be determined to remember what that transition looked like. Without that, I will not have the toolkit to empathize with those who have less kind and altruistic views of homeless persons. Something that is a requirement to address their concerns and have any chance at making effective change.

Sacrificing Voice and Fighting False Narratives of Impoverished People

As we explore the state of hunger and homelessness in the United States, we lend focus to the working poor. Pushing past opaque and formal language, we take a look at people who work an incredible number of hours (if they are lucky enough to get them), in unacceptably unstable environments, who do not have the luxury of making “rational” decisions, and must employ an unparalleled level of non-traditional knowledge to simply survive in the wealthiest country on earth.

In the effort to survive, these people sacrifice their voice – both in their rightful place in their democracy and in the stories that are told about them. Thus, elected officials and policies are disconnected from the needs and realities of this growing group which fosters a system that is increasingly hostile to them. Yet, this group isn’t even afforded the luxury of being ignored. They become Reagan’s unifying enemy: the welfare queen. A term that evokes images of ease, relaxation, and luxury which couldn’t be less representative of the 13,251,400 Americans who were food insecure in 2017.

Between the loss of control over their own narrative and the physical barriers our society puts between the poor and everyone else, we must actively combat the seductive narratives that it’s solely the fault of the poor that they got there or remain there. This course has offered us several resources to deconstruct the narratives that have been created about the poor including the Invisible People YouTube site, Barbara Ehrenreich’s popular book – Nickel and Dimed, and many well-written articles. The pathos in these people’s life story combined with a structural look at the mechanisms of poverty paints a much more complete and empathetic understanding of what it means to be impoverished in the United States of America.