Bless and Keep the Homeless

far away from us. According to this article by Scott Clifford and Spencer Piston in the Washington Post, that’s the explanation for the approach that cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland have taken towards the homeless. Rather than being motivated by compassion they are motivated by disgust:

In the spring, voters in Los Angeles decided to raise their own sales taxes to alleviate homelessness. Other large American cities — including not just Los Angeles, but also Seattle and Portland — have joined in declaring homelessness a state of emergency in the past couple of years.

But that concern is complicated by a quite different attitude: disgust. In a recent article, we show that disgust helps explain why even though many Americans support increased government aid to homeless people, they also support laws that effectively make homelessness a crime. What’s more, the news media’s approach to reporting on homeless people can activate disgust, increasing public support for policies that make it difficult for the homeless to pull themselves out of poverty and get off the street.

What would policies actually structured to deal with the problems of homelessness be like? I would suggest a four-pronged attack. First, we need a very different attitude towards mental illness. Something between a quarter and a half of the homeless are mentally ill. The mentally ill poor need safe, humane residential settings where they can receive treatment. The deinstitutionalization movement began about 50 years ago and was one of those rare confluences between compassion and cost savings. It’s time to recognize that we made a mistake and rectify it. The streets are a less humane solution than asylums not a more humane one.

The second prong is economic activity. We need more economic activity and the jobs that it brings.

The third prong is zoning. Zoning should be changed to require all new high rise construction to include some defined proportion of residential space. The cities that have done so, e.g. Toronto, have seen increases in the availability of affordable housing.

The fourth prong is demanding that every able-bodied adult of sound mind should work. Some proportion of the homeless are people who just like living rough and don’t want to work. That should not be tolerated.

4 comments… add one
  • steve

    You would need to solve the mental health AND the drug issues. Not easy to do. Most of those mentally ill don’t want to live with other people. Most non-mentally ill people don’t want to spend money on mental health. It is one of those health issues where the victim is often blamed for their own problems. Same with drugs. The people who don’t want to work aren’t going to start working because you require it. They aren’t getting welfare for the most part. Affordable housing, while a good idea, won’t fix much for the homeless.


  • Andy

    I agree with your prescription except for the last item. I’m not sure how it would be possible to force people to work, depending on how work is defined.

    I’d also add something regarding zoning. Most counties have very restrictive rules about housing and where people can legally live. The Tiny House movement, just as one example, is a direct response to a lot of these rules.

  • CuriousOnlooker

    Living in one of those named metros. I don’t agree that the reaction is all or primary about disgust.

    In Seattle, a big reason why some of the homeless camps were removed was they became safety hazards and crime hotspots. The notorious “Jungle” got closed after a bunch of murders.

    Neediness to say, a makeshift camp of squatters is not an easy place to enforce safety regulations or have police presence.

  • Oh, I agree that disgust probably isn’t the motivation. I think that the strategy that has been used to address homelessness has appeal because it allows its advocates to express compassion while minimizing how much they’re inconvenienced by it.

    Genuine compassion would mean that steps would be taken that would actually address the problem and I’ve outlined those in the post above.

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