Advocate says distaste, disgust slows progress toward solving homelessness.
There seems to be an urgency about addressing homelessness, but urgency hasn’t always led to lasting solutions. That may be less about resources than how people feel about poverty in general.
Sara Rankin, a Seattle University law professor who has studied the problem for years, says we’re fighting against instincts that make us want to turn away from homeless people.
Rankin said there is a wealth of studies that show that “when we’re exposed to visible evidence of poverty we react to that with higher rates of disgust, anger and annoyance than exposure to any other marginalized trait.”
Rankin is director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle U, and the group has produced six new reports on various aspects of homelessness across the country. Everywhere, cities are looking for solutions.
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Portland is experimenting with letting people who are homeless set up shelters at night when they sleep in public spaces, like sidewalks. Journalists from several San Francisco media outlets have agreed to blanket the city with coverage of homelessness on the same day in June.
Seattle announced its plan for the homeless encampment called The Jungle. The city is partnering with Union Gospel Mission, which will do two weeks of outreach starting this week, connecting people to services and shelter. Then the city will clear out the area.
Rankin is more than wary of that plan. One of the reports her group produced is titled “Why Cities Should Embrace Homeless Encampments.” That includes not just authorized camps, but unauthorized ones like The Jungle.
“What are they going to do with these 300 to 400 people? What are they going to do with their belongings? What are they going to do with their pets, partners, friends, other people they consider to be parts of their households?”
She said there are not enough shelter beds to house them without displacing other people. And shelters have restrictions that differ from each other and make placing people in them difficult. A person might not be accepted because of gender, age, addiction, criminal record and so on. And people can be assaulted in shelters, lose their belongings or be sent out into the streets during the day.
She acknowledged the problems that places like The Jungle have, but said sweeps are counterproductive.
“We’re not suggesting that encampments are a good solution,” Rankin said. “We’re saying that cities should not disrupt encampments … unless they have got some place to send people, something to offer people in exchange.”
Consultant Barbara Poppe earlier this year said the city was wasting effort on authorized encampments that it should spend dealing with underlying causes of homelessness. I agree with that, but encampments make sense if they are used as the starting points for moving people into permanent solutions. Rankin suggests the city could provide sanitation and policing while working to connect people to services and permanent housing.
But Rankin said most people’s reaction to visible evidence of poverty is to get rid of it, which, she said, is why there are so many laws that make it hard for homeless people to take care of their basic human needs. She mentioned laws against public urination and defecation. Why not provide public toilets?
“As much as people may not like to talk about it,” she said, “you cannot exist without pooping and peeing.”
“We tend to blame poor people for their own poverty,” she said. “We associate them with criminality, we look at them through this lens of evaluating them based on their perceived impact on our public health and safety. We don’t think about their public health and safety.”
That compounds the problem, she said, because laws that try to drive poor people out of the view of others deprives us of the understanding that can come from proximity and that could lead to real solutions.
If we were closer, she said, we might ask ourselves what choices we would make if faced with the same circumstances. She thinks maybe we don’t want to look too closely because we fear the answers. We might, she said, have to acknowledge how close we all are to desperation.