It’s easy to assume, or at least hope, that the increasing number of services for homeless people is making a difference for those without housing. But the number of people sleeping outside each night is also increasing — in nearly direct proportion with the amount of raises in rent, in fact. This is happening even as downtown Seattle gets converted bit by bit into sites for condos with rents starting at $2,000. These changes obscure any evidence of the 2008 recession and its sluggish recovery. In Craig Willse’s “The Value of Homelessness,” he argues that our housing insecurity crisis is manufactured, rather than incidental.
Since the housing-market crash almost a decade ago, the fear that anyone could become homeless at any moment has lingered in the air, as if those struggling to survive on the streets are ghosts of a potential future sent by neoliberal capitalism’s excesses to warn the lazy and unproductive of their likely fate. But Willse — while acknowledging the spread of housing insecurity across all populations — argues that homelessness in America is extremely racialized and genderized. Those living outside are disproportionately men, and men of color. In other words, no, not anyone could become homeless at any time.
The service industry that has developed — federal and nonprofit alike — has not only perpetuated the problem but contributed to it. Federal funding requirements waste resources that could be put toward housing people and are so restrictive that they exclude many people in need of housing from even basic services. To receive funding, many nonprofits must process mounds of paperwork that turns homeless people into data that is easily manipulated to shape public policy.
It is often a small portion of the operating budget. Many nonprofits would rather forgo the funding, but need federal backing to qualify for lower-level government funds.
But even more hands-off concepts such as housing-first initiatives are not good enough for Willse. This newer but already quite common approach to homelessness places the most vulnerable people into housing immediately without requiring sobriety or mandating treatment. This sounds like a breath of fresh air compared to paternalistic and coercive prerequisites clients must meet before being “housing ready.” But, Willse says placement is often hurried, usually temporary and mostly poor quality because funding requires agencies to focus on numbers of clients served rather than the particular needs of any one individual.
Most of these initiatives, he argues, are based more on economic reasoning than on compassion for the plight of unsheltered people. While it is more expensive not to house people, Willes is uncomfortable with monetizing human life. It’s an unsustainable practice, with cost as the only motivator. Eventually, programs will abandon helping people as soon as it becomes more expensive to house them than it does to allow them to maintain their existence on the streets.
Willse also deconstructs the medicalization of homelessness — that people who are homeless are unable to care for themselves and therefore need services to help them get their life “back on track” and find ways to live “decently.” Blaming poverty on poor people themselves is a familiar refrain in American-individualism culture, which is why Willse rejects the personal narrative approach taken by many sociologists and homeless advocates as a way to “humanize” those living outside to those maintaining permanent housing. Such accounts perpetuate racial stereotypes, perhaps unwittingly and subtly, and present homelessness as an individual’s responsibility, eclipsing circumstances created by institutional and longstanding injustices enshrined in our society. These stories do nothing to challenge the victim blaming our culture is comfortable inflicting upon poor people, the economic climate that produces poverty or the service industry’s “just enough” approach, which gives poor people “just enough to live, just enough to be economically productive, just enough to not cost too much in dying.”
It is unclear, however, what would be good enough for Willse. He demands that homeless services agencies and nonprofits actually stand up to the powers and structures that are creating housing insecurity and deprivation. He forcefully states throughout his book that handing out sandwiches may be necessary, but it’s ineffective in solving the systemic causes of poverty. He, like many activist voices, is beating the drums for a total system overhaul. Yet his own text seems to me to be yet another instance of knowledge production that uses homeless people for its own end. In this case, he uses homeless people to create an exceedingly technical book that requires the reader to bring to it a solid understanding of concepts like neoliberal governance, poststructuralism and the writings and philosophy of Michel Foucault.
His arguments contradict each other. Willse criticizes the endless studying of homeless people and argues for systemic and systematic change. At the same time, Willse calls for “time and space for necessary rethinking” to rethink homeless services and social sciences.
Homeless people have waited long enough. More texts that are specific about the problem are the last thing anyone needs at this point, especially texts that are so esoterically technical that they serve at many points to obscure their own arguments. While this is genuinely an important read for people in the homeless service industry and those in power and shaping policy, we as a culture seem to be adept at naming and explaining really big problems. What we need are people willing to propose specific, concrete solutions to those problems — ones that any and all of us can start in on now.