Part I: Discarding Failing Homelessness Theories
For any of us, it’s not an uncommon thing to come across the homeless. According to Project Home, the United States in 2016 alone had at least 500,000 homeless. This is particularly striking as the United States has, according to The Economist, the third best standard of living in the world (after Luxembourg and Norway). Because of this, oftentimes many Americans need not travel far to find someone asking for money, holding a sign offering their work for money/food/whatever else, or simply sleeping out in the streets. Oftentimes, many of the homeless also suffer from mental illness, further reducing their ability to care for themselves. In addition, there may even be entire families out on the streets, desperately seeking even the smallest of opportunities for financial and social stability.
The frequency with which we can come across another suffering under such dire conditions can easily lead us to believe that the ongoing persistence of destitution is an inescapable reality. But should we automatically assume that such is actually the case? To those who regularly cross paths with the homeless, it quickly becomes evident that many of these dispossessed are physically quite capable of working, or more precisely of creating exchangeable value. Yet despite this ability, they remain homeless. If their ability to do work is not the issue, then what exactly is keeping the homeless from finding gainful and productive work?
The various homelessness origin theories that are commonly debated fall into two general categories: The Lazy Homeless and The Zero Sum Worldview. This work serves to critique inherent fatal flaws that undermine their very legitimacy.
Failing Theory #1: “The Lazy Homeless”
The Lazy Homeless theory asserts that the homeless simply lack the work ethic or wherewithal to “get ahead“. The idea is that if they simply “got their act together“, then they’d easily find for themselves those opportunities. The basic human motivations from which Lazy Homeless proponents build their argument starts with the belief that it is the fear of joining the destitute (or seeking to escape that status if already there) serves to initiate innovation. From that, they then conclude that it is the lack of such a desire that keeps homeless mired in their never-ending cycle of poverty.
Besides embracing a rather grim worldview, this theory falls apart rather quickly when one considers the actions the homeless actually take in seeking to ameliorate or even escape their circumstances. For starters, consider those begging or looking for work. It takes a considerable amount of will and effort to suffer asking hundreds, if not thousands of people, for something knowing full well to expect rejection potentially every time. If you don’t believe me, go head and try begging.
This theory continues to fall apart when you consider those that sell drinks, food or other goods out on the street. Finally, those that recycle whatever they can find (plastics, metals, etc.) are certainly exhibiting a tremendous work ethic, much like the others. The truth is that the homeless are absolutely trying to change their circumstances but, unfortunately, their options are limited. What exactly is causing these limitations?
Failing Theory #2: “The Zero Sum Worldview: Only Winners and Losers”
Under the Zero Sum theory, it is simply the nature of things that there be those thriving, and others failing, which a religious skeptic would call that blaming God. The theory’s underlying assumption is that there are insufficient space, materials, or energy in this world to create enough opportunities to enable everyone to prosper, which then leads to a cycle of never-ending progress and poverty. But upon further inspection, the Zero Sum theory implodes when you consider that humanity has barely begun to utilize the Earth’s surface resources, including our capacity to collaborate and innovate problems away.
For example, at least 60 years of petroleum reserves remain, even despite increasing global needs. The same holds true for coal, natural gas, and uranium. Ignoring the vast supplies of untapped solar, wind and hydroelectric energy, it’s clear that there’s plenty of available energy with which to meet human wants and needs.
If one were to place the entire human race together in one location, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the amount of land this would require wouldn’t even take up New York City. In addition, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization determined that the Earth is capable of sustaining the dietary needs of a global population of 33 billion. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank currently projects that human population on Earth should plateau at around 8.7 billion by 2055. Even with some margin for error, it becomes fairly apparent that there’s plenty of lands and seas with which to meet humanity’s needs. We just have to be willing to utilize this world’s space, materials, and energy more effectively.
Given the abundance of resources, we really should be asking why exactly is there an apparent lack of space, materials, and energy that serves to keep the homeless (as well as the working poor) from being able to create the wealth that would improve their living conditions? To answer that, we will need to understand how poverty and, by extension homelessness, arise in the first place.
In part II of this series, we’ll cover the mechanics of poverty and homelessness.