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The War On Homelessness

By | Nov 18, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt feels like war. Homelessness, that is.

And I don’t mean the 1960s “War on Poverty” initiative. Although, for many advocates today, it seems as though the government and private sector have joined together for the first time to truly combat homelessness throughout the country. That’s why homeless numbers are trending down – albeit slowly – nationwide.

Despite these unprecedented national efforts, homelessness still feels like a turf battle. You could call it a war.

The theater of engagement consists of this country’s parks, streets, public libraries, alleys, bridges, riverbanks, beaches, business corridors, and hills. These are just an example of the turf occupied by people on the streets, but claimed by people who are housed.

Take New York City, for example. Their parks have become a battleground between “The Unhoused” (people who are banned from other locations and who flock to parks for refuge) versus “The Housed”(people who want to take their children to that same park but are fearful of the homeless).

Military terms such as “invasion” are typically used in public meetings around homelessness. “These people have invaded our park!” “We need to take back our streets!” Such conversations frame people without homes as foreign invaders seeking to conquer our precious land.

This attitude extends to housing. Ask any affordable housing developer how simple it is to build a housing project in a typical residential neighborhood. The NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard!) stories of battling surrounding neighbors are common. Especially, if that new building is geared toward housing people who are experiencing homeless.

Angry community meetings, militant blogs, hateful emails, and large groups of dissenters in city council meetings are common.

The battle over housing homeless individuals and families sometimes becomes an “us” versus “them” struggle—where the “us” are housed Americans who characterize homelessness as an “invasion”; the “them” are the “enemies” or the homeless people that have invaded parks and public spaces.

The weapons of battle on both sides are fierce. The “us” community tries to implement specific strategies, such as tickets, to prevent invasions by “them”. Other tactics are ordinances that prevent street parking, re-zoning that won’t allow housing, and a reduction of funds for homeless services.

Yet advocates for people experiencing homelessness, have their own weapons. The most effective tactic is the lawsuit centered on civil rights.

Shouldn’t anyone, including a person who is homeless, have the right to sit in a park, take a nap (even if it is hours long) on a bench, and ask for money on the sidewalk?

Such lawsuits have effectively prevented some communities from outlawing panhandling, squatting on public property, carting away belongings, and using the streets as public toilets.

The result is stalemate. Nothing happens. No clean streets. No new housing. It feels like two countries (think North and South Korea) that are technically in a state of war, but still coincide alongside each other in a tentative state.

No one wins.

It is easy to focus on the causes and politics of homelessness and get bogged down by its complexities.

However, the diplomatic solution is simple.

Provide enough housing for everyone living on our streets, and allow communities to keep their streets clean.

Now I think successfully implementing such an initiative should win a Nobel Peace Prize.