There’s a lot of language in our community that surrounds and informs our understanding of housing – what it means to be housed or to not be housed, and what that means. The words we use when we talk literally say a lot about how we think and, perhaps more importantly, how we feel. Stabilized shelter has been a critical component of human living since the late-Pleistocene period and its discussion is deservedly bound to generate strong feelings in all persons who utilize or desire it.
When I hear the word “lazy” to describe someone without a home, I envision the speaker as a person who sees hard work and industry as core personal beliefs, and the defense of these beliefs as part of their responsibility to the community as an involved citizen and concerned taxpayer. When I hear someone else describe housing as a “right,” I see an individual whose personal understanding of the role of shelter in human society causes them to pursue the expansion of what has historically been an unspoken societal goal into an announced public policy. They, too, are doing this for the benefit of the same community. Words like “lazy” or “right” are deliberately proactive. They are used to create reaction but this does not make the first hypothetical commenter heartless any more than it makes the second hypothetical commenter a communist. Regardless of word choice, what’s important is that both parties are interested enough in the subject to publicly discuss it.
There are a lot of words and phrases that, at first glance, don’t seem to have too much to do with housing: unemployed; abandoned; addicted; depressed; shiftless; PTSD; teen; angry; sick; nuts; mentally ill; broke; drunk; lonely; veteran; abused; worthless; son; brother; father; daughter. Amongst these words and many others dealing with housing issues, be they clinically or emotionally derived, the word “homeless” is the most striking and troubling to me in newfound meaning.
“Homeless” used to be an adjective. It described a quality of a person like: Sarah is smart; Dan is fast; Brian is distracted; Amy is homeless. Today, we refer to the people who don’t have shelter as “the homeless.” The homeless problem. The homeless are panhandling everywhere. The homeless are freezing to death. What used to be a descriptor has become a label, an adjective turned into a noun. I think we need to be concerned, or at least reflective, when we attach one name to a wide variety of women, men and children who may have only one shared characteristic: no permanent shelter. I have a lot of character defects. I hope every day for my sake and the sake of all those who love me that I am not known primarily for my faults, nor recognized solely by my flaws. Each evening as I pull into my garage, I don’t consider myself “the housed.” I consider myself blessed.
Historically, beggars, the infirm, those “touched by God,” and others suffering untold maladies have been a fixture in front of city gates and temples for at least as long as civilization has been recorded. Their wretched existences were maintained for the sake of spectacle to be an example of what “we” the healthy were not. In time, tzedakah, the works of mercy, zakat, the tithe and organizations that could fulfill these holy and social duties were created and change occurred.
Today we are faced with real challenges, but we are likewise fortunate to recognize a real solution. There is a housing paradigm called Housing First that is found in cities big and small throughout the United States that has a remarkable, longitudinally proven, fiscally responsible record for eliminating homelessness as we know it. Take a look at the wiki here en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Housing_First.
The governmental organization charged with reducing homelessness while increasing affordable housing for our low-income citizens in Thurston County is the HOME Consortium. Too often, as a concerned community, we follow emotions and not evidence-based practices. While this is understandable, it ultimately neither serves the person in need over the long-term nor the community. In a tight economy and for the dignity of those we serve, best practices should be observed by providers, evaluated by the county and demanded by the elected officials of the consortium. The tools are out there, it is time for us, as a community, to pick them up.
Curt Andino is the Executive Director of South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity and is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He may be reached at email@example.com.