Only the most cold-hearted and quite frankly misguided individuals uniformly support not giving aid to the homeless. Comparatively, there are many people who think the idea of giving money to the homeless is good and that supporting charity efforts to counter inequalities is the culmination of social responsibility to the disadvantaged. I see this sort of charity all the time: if people do interact with the town’s too-large and apparent homeless population, it takes the form of throwing a few coins into a cup. Feeling content and pitying, they pat themselves on the back for their good deed and continue on their day. Oftentimes they don’t even look at the person. This epitomizes how we treat homelessness: as an issue of convenience. Efforts to combat it seldom attack its root causes, nor do they radically challenge the status quo; in fact, they conform to it and allow it to continue.
It’s shocking how little discussion we have at Amherst about the homeless community in town, an extension of how little we feel compelled to consider ourselves part of the town of Amherst and a wider community. We’re products of an individualistic culture and Amherst allows us to flaunt our individualism; our community exists only insofar as it allows us that one pleasure we so desperately crave as students who live “lives of consequence.” However, if we really want to live lives of consequence, we need to stop sheltering ourselves from uncomfortable issues and from society at large; we need to stop involving ourselves in ways which are convenient for us and don’t break up the social status quo, and move toward acknowledging those around us as collective members of society who we can learn from, who have agency, and who deserve to and want to participate in society. There is no more apparent example than how we treat homelessness in Amherst.
Most efforts to combat homelessness are superficial at best. Shelters, the most obvious example, provide immediate services but do little to reincorporate the homeless into society; neither do they address systemic issues of poverty in wider society that lead to homelessness. They do not challenge assumptions about who should and should not participate in society and what notions of community should be created. This superficiality is especially pervasive in the dynamic of charitable giving. We always ask: how many times have you ever stopped to give someone on the street a dollar? We don’t ask: how many times have you stopped to talk to a person on the street asking for a dollar and learned that their poverty won’t be solved by a few dollars a day? Few ,either people or organizations, move in this direction.
But, those in the housing-first movement — which emphasizes having a home as the key to combating homelessness — do, and there are lessons we can all learn from this movement about combating institutional homelessness and poverty and about simply fostering a more inclusive rhetoric in society. One of the best organizations in this movement is Common Ground, a New York City-based housing-first advocacy group and service provider founded by Roseanne Haggerty (Amherst class of 1982). The organization chiefly focuses on setting up service networks centered around housing the homeless as the most important aspect of combating homelessness. In arguing for housing, they aren’t simply arguing that the solution to homelessness is having a physical residence to reside in; rather, they are saying that the solution is having a community and a place to belong to, or a home. Common Ground, in its efforts to house the homeless and thereby incorporate them into society, radically alters the status quo through acknowledging the agency of homeless people and their desire to fit into society.
Common Ground takes this initiative further than many housing-advocates that argue that the homeless should be carefully watched and monitored with harsh restrictions on how to act and what they may do, punishing them for not meeting these standards by removing them from aid programs. This sort of authoritarian-approach eschewed by Common Ground does not break from the capitalist ideology that implies that homeless people do not deserve homes unless they meet some standard of competence and it assumes that they won’t meet this standard out of their own will, which is the perfect example of the patronizing attitude of traditional efforts to combat inequality.
But Common-Ground’s efforts do not exclusively focus on housing the homeless — a lesson to students to recognize the big-picture need for systems of support for success in society. On one hand, Common-Ground argues that systemic inequalities such as lack of health care, lack of awareness about mental illness, and divestment in poverty-stricken neighborhoods lead to poverty; these systemic inequalities shouldn’t be challenged via charity but via institutional pushes away from these systems of inequality. A few dollars won’t help a person, but a system of social welfare would – just as it would benefit everyone in the nation because it would allow everyone to contribute more effectively to society. Charity is nice, but the poor shouldn’t need charity. Divestment in the prison system and the military would provide enough money to tackle not only homelessness but wide swaths of poverty in the US. Students should start thinking about this and should start working to challenge an unequal system at its roots rather than volunteering to make that unequal system slightly more bearable.
Even more radically, the organization fosters a sense of community and collective living by encouraging other members of communities to house with them, in particular struggling artists and musicians. Common Ground’s philosophy of housing shifts the mood toward a participatory one in which other members of outside communities do not help from the outside but help by becoming part of a joint community. Fostering a sense of community in which different portions of the population can learn from one another and are valuable members of society — rather than blights on it — directly challenges capitalist efficiency and encourages a new system of cooperation which flies directly in the face of the segmentation of populations and rampant competition which roots inequality in the first place. It rests on the notion that happiness does not come from earning, getting or giving, but from learning and sharing. We at Amherst value this in the abstract, but even in the classroom it’s easy to see us stray away from it. Classrooms, which should be opportunities to express confusion and emotion and support one another’s ideas, too often become a sort of competition in which each student speaking is “making their case” or earning points for the day and those who don’t make arguments which are fully formed are deemed “wastes of time.” Even in this small scale we have a lot to learn from organizations like Common Ground.
There are many efforts in the spirit of organizations like Common Ground which Amherst students can push to support. Most simply, try asking a homeless person what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it. Become a part of the Amherst community rather than someone who sets aside a time of day for “volunteer-work” and then returns to the Amherst Bubble. Incorporate the homeless population’s interests into yours and yours into theirs. More institutionally, push for public-housing projects rather than shelters; it may seem like there is a lack of funding for public-housing, but Common Ground has effectively shown that there are numerous loopholes in federal funding initiatives by which the government will subsidize housing if set up locally. Beyond this, local organizations such as the Amherst Housing Authority exercise similar efforts, including offering rents at a fraction of income rather than a fixed price and emphasizing community as well; but even such organizations often tend to utilize practices which require strict standards of behavior and impose harsh regulations on those who don’t meet certain standards despite the fact that they many who suffer from mental illness or other factors that lead to homelessness are less able to meet these standards than others. These local organizations are a step up from shelters, but students should protest and push them to change their policies more institutionally rather than simply volunteering at the organizations while allowing them to stay relatively unchanged.
Again, this is not to say that volunteer-work for shelters and similar organizations is not an important effort toward combating inequality; lacking more significant efforts, it is integral. But to those students who feel they are doing their part, think more carefully about your relationship to those you help and those around you, about the structures of society and how to change the way the members of the public work with one another in a more substantive way. Amherst is not a bubble and charity does not fundamentally change this; it does not legitimately bring the homeless into any discussion about society or embrace their humanity. Acknowledging their membership in society and pursuing policies which reflect the idea that all members of society should be entitled to certain rights, including the right to a home, does. If students do truly support social welfare, they should think about ways to challenge social systems more institutionally, rather than volunteering within them; this turns passive help into active help, and it is essential if inequality will ever be substantially reduced in society.