(Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia)
I’ve noticed that when some of my peers are confronted with stories of homelessness, they have a tendency to shriek, “I don’t want to talk about that!” and stop the conversation.
Their reactions remind me of what Susan Sontag wrote in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others: “Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.” I agree.
Yet I also think moral and psychological adulthood involves a certain level of imagination. We must be willing to bear witness to suffering and then be willing to imagine its cessation. This imagined alternative is the birthplace of social justice work. Failures of imagination happen, but they tend to be most pronounced when they concern the poorest, most marginalized members of our society.
We take their suffering for granted, then describe interventions to ameliorate it as “unrealistic,” “unsustainable,” and “not cost effective”— even when that isn’t true, a point eminently made by the Housing First model of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless adults.
In the United States, one of our principal failures of imagination is the way we think about housing.
We treat it like a commodity, a financial asset, and a privilege — as a luxury item that can and should be out of reach for vast numbers of people. The notion of affordable housing is treated like a contradiction in terms, or as code for “unworthy.” Meanwhile, the explicit human right to housing—which was outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ratified by the United States government — is dismissed as a pipe dream, as something literally unimaginable.
When we collectively think about housing in that way, it should come as no surprise that nearly 1 million people experience homelessness in this country on any given night.
Recently, I had the chance to confront these uniquely American beliefs about housing when I facilitated a conversation about the human right to housing amongst a group of adults. At one point, I asked the group, “What would it mean to you to know that you would never have to worry about losing your home, or never have to worry about being evicted to the streets, or never have to worry about where you would lay your head at night?”
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Their initial responses were frantic: “Well, if we did that, people would just stop working,” “People would just do drugs and invite other people over to do drugs,” “People would become lazy,” “Those people need to stop expecting the government to…”, etc.
I interrupted them to clarify: “I’m not asking what you think other people would do. I’m asking what would it mean to you to know that you would never have to worry about losing your home [etc.]? Tell me what a fully realized human right to housing would mean to you.”
That’s when things got interesting. Nearly a minute of silence went by. Then the group members began responding: “Well, I would feel safe and secure,” “I would feel free to show up more deeply for the rest of my life,” “I would feel calmer, and saner actually,” “I would worry less,” “I would spend more time helping raise my children instead of working a second job,” “I would be more involved politically,” etc.
That’s the point, I told them. That’s the promise of the human right to housing, and why our government endorsed it nearly a century ago. People cannot fulfill the duties and responsibilities of citizenship — let alone care for their families or communities — when they are living in constant survival mode, and that is precisely how we live when we lack safe, adequate, affordable housing.
This is not a luxury item. It is a basic human need.
One of the purposes of government is to provide pragmatic, coordinated responses to crisis situations. We already see this to a certain extent when governments respond to the homelessness crisis by funding emergency shelters or Permanent Supportive Housing for chronically homeless individuals. A human right to housing implies that government will lean further in that direction by investing in more widespread housing stability.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have a role to play in this work, but a fully realized human right to housing ultimately depends on government, and for three reasons. First, NGOs are not equipped with the level of material and human resources that governments have. Second, NGOs are not accountable to the people in the way governments are. Third, and most importantly, only governments confer rights.
As the conversation around a human right to housing advances, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about reimagining housing, not “innovating” it. Calls for “innovation” are very common throughout social services, where they tend to imply creatively filling gaps left by meagre or nonexistent public institutions.
But in all the excitement about “innovation,” we overlook the obvious. In this case, we design a variety of specialized homelessness interventions — i.e. Specialized low-demand shelters and Safe Havens; specialized healthcare for the homeless clinics, counseling programs, and respite centers; specialized street outreach programs, etc. — rather than make deep public investments in housing itself.
In When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health (2013), the anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas provides a memorable critique of this “specialized” approach to crisis situations. In describing The Carter Center’s strategies for eradicating guinea worm disease in several African countries, she notes that they seemed “designed to eradicate a waterborne disease without providing clean water.”
Rather than invest in the long-term, more expensive infrastructural projects that local communities wanted — specifically, water wells and a public water supply — the Center mainly innovated. They provided specialized drinking straws retrofitted with filters; other specialized filters for jugs; and specialized pesticide treatments for ponds.
These technologies have undoubtedly contributed to guinea worm eradication. But the wells would have done the same — in addition to addressing a variety of other waterborne pathogens that the Carter Center’s filters, straws, and pesticides do not protect against.
With that in mind, I wonder: Across the United States, are we trying to eradicate a waterborne disease without providing clean water? Are we trying to eradicate homelessness without providing adequate, affordable housing? Are we innovating rather than investing?
As members of a democratic society we have a duty to confront the world as it is and envision something better. Now is the time for moral and psychological adulthood, which means it is also the time for imagination.
So rather than innovate, I want to invite you to take a moment to imagine what a fully realized human right to housing might look like.
But most importantly, I want you to take it personally. Consider what that right would mean to you, your family, and your community. Consider this imagined alternative, and see where it takes you.
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