Not Wong: Homelessness

Homelessness is a multi-faceted  issue without a panacea. That being said, this article posits that imagining homeless individuals as victims of systemic problems only entrenches their disempowered status.  The counter-narrative that should be adopted is one in which homeless individuals are seen as people  every member of the public can help, without requiring grand structural shifts. It should be noted that it is perfectly legitimate and valid to hold that homelessness  is the result, to a greater or lesser extent, of socioeconomic factors. Yet it is non-conducive to dwell on structural sources of the problem, as opposed to the potential for individual agency to combat the issue.

Firstly, an excessively structural framing of the problem engenders defeatism, and discourages attempts to solve it. The connotations of a structural problem are clear: such problems  are fundamental, macroscopic, and require political or social capital on a scale inaccessible for 99.9% of society. Charity, aid, donations etc. are unhelpfully framed as “temporary, unsustainable strategies”, which in turn allows the average individual on the street to shirk away from contributing and providing immediate assistance that is often necessary. By reducing the problem to manageable sizes, the public can be made to recognise the difference they can make regardless of their lack of structural political and economic power. In a world where individual acts of kindness are emphasised as a key component of resolving the problem, the average citizen is far more likely to feel motivated to extend a helping hand towards the homeless. Problem identification does not equate problem resolution.

Secondly, it must be noted that political capital for the homeless has failed to increase over the past decade for a number of structural reasons:

  1. Political elites respond primarily to votes and secondarily to lobbying power; homeless individuals, have neither.
  2. Politicians prioritise more “visible” problems – so long as the public could not “see” the homeless (consider the exclusion of the homeless from public spaces through the installation of “defensive architecture” – e.g. spikes and barriers lining expensive shops), the problem becomes far easier to dismiss
  3. Issue prioritisation within social welfare has predominantly been centred on “universal” issues – e.g. retirement pensions and healthcare, less so around “local” issues that affect only particular subgroups of individuals.

All of these phenomena suggest that the claim that a structural framing of the problem of the problem of homelessness better enables a solution  is – at best – an assertion; at worst – an excuse. Given these constraints and the above reasoning regarding why citizens are far less likely to care about an issue when they perceive their they cannot change it, we ought to abandon the illusion that politicians can be depended upon to help homeless individuals – and take matters into our own hands. Problem resolution will not occur so long as the public adopts a passive, “wait-and-see” approach.

Thirdly, the premise that all issues pertaining to homelessness are necessarily a manifestation of socioeconomic problems should also be challenged. Discriminatory narratives that construct images of the homeless as “lazy”, “unwanted” dependents; the absence of psychological support and humanisation that has rendered the poor feeling powerless and deprived of normal social functions; or even just the lack of regular supplies of minimal security (i.e. no clothes, blankets, or food) are problems that do not require “grand, structural solutions”. Instead, these are problems that can be resolved through the mobilisation of the relatively affluent to act altruistically. These individuals are far more likely to respond to a paradigm which does not present the homeless as victims waiting for the state’s assistance, but as individual persons – with their own projects, ambitions, and dreams – who could benefit from a fellow citizen’s helping hand.

Perhaps it is true that homelessness is a consequence of capitalism. Yet insisting that it can only be solved through structural shifts is fruitless and counterproductive: change will never arrive through the sheer act of waiting. There is an imperative to act now – and act promptly.