When people complain about tents and garbage in Fremont, I wonder whether they’re more bothered by having to look at these visual signs of our community’s failure, or whether they actually care about the adults and children who live in those tents. The former tend to want to punish, rather than help, people in need, and seek to divide them into “the real homeless” (or the “deserving poor”) and all the others. But our Christian faith teaches us that there is no such thing as deserving or undeserving people. There are only people. Full stop.
Yes, we need to address issues of public safety and public health. We should be able to walk around our city without harm. Small business owners should be able to operate in a climate that allows them to flourish. Police should be able to do their job of protecting the public without the distractions of nuisance calls about unhoused people. Kids should be able to play in parks free of needles. But these problems are symptoms of a societal illness— the secondary symptoms of the primary illness of homelessness.
The most effective treatment for this primary illness has been proven to be housing. Starting with housing enables unhoused people to find a sufficiently stable environment to address their other issues. This philosophy is sometimes called “housing first.” And the more supportive the housing program, the more likely it is to succeed at actually addressing the societal illness of homelessness.
So, it is important that we don’t conflate homelessness with drug use, mental illness, and crime. I would not be surprised if arrest statistic were to show that unhoused people are arrested at higher rates than housed people (and I don’t know that they do, but if they do, I wouldn’t be surprised). That is because when housed people break the law by using drugs, or when they act strangely, they do so in the privacy of their own homes, and so they aren’t arrested for this behavior. If you’re not housed and you use drugs, you have to do it in public, and you’re more likely to be arrested for doing so. If you’re unhoused and acting strangely, you’re doing so in public, and a passerby is much more likely to call the police about it.
I am so grateful that I have not heard dehumanizing language in our church about people who are homeless. It is important that we stand up to anyone who gratuitously calls people who are homeless “wretched souls” “living like animals” in “filth and degradation” — language we’ve all heard used. This is unconscionable. When this sort of language is used, it causes a physiological reaction that inhibits our humane response to the people we’re talking about, people who are unsheltered.
If our society wants to do something effective, we need a two-prong approach. We need to get the people who are currently unhoused into housing. That’s what the proposed Housing Navigation Center will do. We also need to address the systemic problems that lead to homelessness, problems like the high cost of housing and wages that don’t keep pace; lack of health, mental health, and addiction services; our regressive tax system; generations of racial discrimination; mass incarceration; and long-term cuts in public housing — to name a few.
The worst thing we can do is criminalize homelessness. Let’s remember the humanity of our neighbors and in doing so rediscover our own humanity.