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What homeless encampments can teach us about the state of nature

July 17, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose
There is an important term in political philosophy: the social contract. It means the basic agreement, in any community, about the rules we live by, the duties we have to one another, who has power, and how they use it.

The term also describes our underlying assumptions about power and authority, for example:

  • “The primary purpose of government is to protect property rights and capital accumulation”
  • “People are only entitled to what they earn through their labor”
  • “We should always obey our leaders”

When people do not live according to the terms of a social contract, they are living in what political theorists call the “state of nature.” The term, in its most basic sense, is meant to describe a state of literal lawlessness, or every-man-for-himself. Questions about the state of nature matter because they are questions about human nature — who we are, who we really are, when no one is in charge, when the government collapses, or when we go off-grid.

The highly influential 17th century political theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke expressed the two main theories about what happens in the state of nature. Hobbes believed that without a common superior, all will be chaos and violence. Locke, on the other hand, believed that people are naturally benevolent and collaborative. He believed people will generally, and peacefully, figure things out amongst themselves even if there is no central government or security apparatus.

From time to time, communities engage in a process of rewriting the social contract — a process variously labeled “social change,” “transformation,” “revolution,” etc. We’re living in such a moment right now.

As we consider rewriting the social contract in our particular community, organization, or society, it serves us well to consider the state of nature. After all, changing the social contract means changing — and perhaps destabilizing — the building blocks of our current social order. If you plan on changing the power structure, you may also want to plan for what happens if the structure implodes. Will people collaborate to support one another during the transition? Or will they destroy each other in a mad dash for power?

As it happens, the field of homeless services is an ideal place to reflect on these questions.

Our ongoing work to democratize shelter management in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program could be described as an investigation into the state of nature. After all, our guiding question in this process has been: What would happen if we minimized the role of common superior (i.e. shelter staff) and gave the guests more control of the shelter?

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It turns out there has been no civil war. The shelters have not become saloons, brothels, or crack-houses. When given control over managing cleaning supplies, the men thoughtfully store, ration, and use what our budget permits. When given a monthly food budget of their own, they judiciously save money each month. When given power and influence over the disciplinary process, they readily demonstrate mercy and offer second chances. When given the option of having no curfew, they decide they do in fact want a curfew. The floors are swept, the trash is removed, and yes, even the toilets get cleaned.

But an emergency shelter isn’t really the most ideal place to reflect on the state of nature because we, shelter staff, are always in the background. We may promote self-governance amongst the guests, but they still recognize us as the overarching authority.

If we really want to learn about the state of nature, and what it says about human nature, there’s somewhere else we should be looking. We need to look at where people are the most marginalized from civil society, the most disconnected from the political community, the most excluded from traditional forms of governance. We need to look at people living literally on the street, and what happens when they gather together. We need to look at homeless encampments  — because in the American imagination, they epitomize the state of nature.

As it happens, Locke and Hobbes help us understand why we might think of them that way.

According to Locke, the possession, ownership, and management of property was the foundation of citizenship. It demonstrated that a person is rational, hardworking, and therefore worthy of participation in government. In fact, in early American history a person had to own property in order to be eligible to vote at all. Under that rubric, to be homeless — to lack property — comes to mean that one is a failed citizen, irrational, and lazy. From Locke’s original idea that lack of property makes one unfit for participation in government, we see our own modern belief that lack of property makes one unfit for existing in our community.

Meanwhile, Hobbes believed that the state of nature revealed our true human nature as brutish animals at war with one another. This is also how some people think of people experiencing street homelessness: as nasty, aggressive creatures; as beings with questionable humanity, not just failed citizens. According to Locke and Hobbes — who are, by the way, two of the intellectual fathers of the society we live in today — we should expect a homeless encampment to resemble life among a pack of hyenas.

But if we look at actual examples of homeless encampments we see something very different.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, by 2014 there were an estimated one hundred homeless encampments across the United States, ranging in size from a dozen to hundreds of people living together. Most encampments are prohibited by local no-camping ordinances and restrictions on sleeping in public. Nonetheless, people experiencing homelessness continue to establish encampments — and for understandable reasons such as lack of affordable housing; lack of adequate housing; lack of shelter beds; safety concerns associated with entering shelter; and shelter restrictions that limit one’s ability to work, reside with a significant other, or carry out daily activities.

In that sense, encampments emerge at least in part because of the failures or inflexibilities of social services and social policies.

Many encampments even become organized and self-governing. For example, according to a report from the Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, encampments in Portland, Oregon, often establish 24-hour security systems with resident patrols, internal contracts prohibiting violence and substance use, and other safety measures. Some homeless encampments require residents to share in the labor of cleaning and managing the camp and its surrounding areas.

A second report from the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project describes how the self-governing Camp Second Chance in Seattle, Washington, began as an illegal encampment, but established such a positive relationship with the surrounding neighborhood that the city granted it a contract to remain in operation.

The report also describes how the Dignity Village encampment achieved such a high level of organization that it incorporated as a membership-based nonprofit with formal community policies, monthly meetings, and insurance for residents.

When people live on the margins of society and government, they do not necessarily or inevitably descend into chaos, anarchy, or violence.

In fact, the evidence demonstrates that encampments regularly establish cooperative, protective communities amongst themselves. They demonstrate the capacity for democratic self-governance that political philosophers have long considered a virtue.

This is not to say that encampments are a good thing. No human being should have to live on the streets — and especially in the world’s wealthiest country.

In that sense, perhaps the most important thing we can learn from encampments is that people experiencing homelessness are not social rejects, failed citizens, or animals. They are people, just like us, and who deserve better than life at the margins.

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