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Anyone hanging out on social media sites, like Nextdoor or any FaceBook group specific to an Orange County city, for any length of time will have encountered a post that reads something like this (excerpted from an actual Nextdoor post, with only a name removed):
“All of you advocates really should consider opening up your own homes to shelter the homeless people! Obviously, you have the funds to give them money. Don’t tell me or others that giving them change and buying them a drink and they’ll appreciate… Contraire, don’t they want more & want everything for free! Why don’t you and the other advocates put your funds together and go purchase a hotel, motel & get the homeless off the streets! You are in favor so you take care of them and all those that advocate for them!”
It’s strange how this is thought to be the ultimate test of a “true” homeless advocate, and the ultimate solution to homelessness – the challenge to take a stranger (one who is invariably presumed to be some combination of criminal/druggie/schizophrenic/psychotic) into your home and rehabilitate them to the point where they can be good neighbors and take care of themselves and earn a living and pay taxes.
Now that I have worked closely for nearly 2 years with a handful of people who have been homeless for years, and have met (and shared food with) hundreds of other homeless people on a weekly or monthly basis for nearly 2 years, I feel that I can speak with some authority on this subject.
Oh, sure, I get it. The scenario has a certain moralistic aroma, and neatly absolves the proponent of any responsibility, because obviously, if a true advocate can’t house and care for such a stranger, then obviously no one else can be expected to put them in a house/apt/condo/tiny house/structured campground and give them the support services necessary to keep them in that home, let alone share a home with them. And it is an extremely selfless act when done for a stranger!
But notice how this argument is never applied to any other segment of the population? No one says, “I’m tired of my taxes going to help those handicapped folks! Why don’t the nurses and physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons all pay for them? They obviously can afford it, and they care so deeply about them!”
No one argues that immigrant rights advocates or immigration lawyers should adopt immigrants and teach them our ways.
No one says, “I’m tired of my taxes being used to shelter all those dogs and cats. Why don’t all the dog and cat lovers find them out on the streets, trap them, adopt them, take care of them, and teach them not to poop on my lawn!”
I think the real appeal of the advocates-should-welcome-the-homeless-into-their-homes-with-open-arms argument is that it (most likely subconsciously) acknowledges the only solution to homelessness that has any hope of actually solving the problem is to supply a home and the help needed to stay there.
But homeless people, some of whom are suffering from severe mental illness, some of whom are addicts (whether they started out that way, or life on the streets drove them to seek temporary chemical release from their suffering), some of whom have serious medical issues (not least of which can be the result of long-term homelessness), and some of whom have committed crimes – sure, let’s have a bunch of random citizens take responsibility for them and provide them with a home! What could go wrong? (It should be noted that people have been sued for much less than that, when things don’t work out. That’s why we have to have the Good Samaritan law, to protect someone from being sued if they pull a person from a burning car and cause them some injury in the process. But it’s also why we certify and license professions like doctors, because the average citizen is not equipped or trained to perform that kind of work.)
The truth is that advocates provide housing to homeless folks on a temporary basis frequently. Right now, I am helping to pay the motel room fee for one woman who has been living in her car and is suffering from severe swelling in her legs, so she can have a proper bed for a while and elevate her legs. A friend and fellow advocate has been paying the room fee for another woman for at least a week, and has been helping her find some kind of transitional housing that meets her needs. That same person, a real saint, has invited homeless women on several occasions into her own home to live there temporarily. I have also had a homeless family house-sit for me a couple of times, and hired a homeless guy to fix a leak in my roof.
Generally speaking, however, such interactions take place only after both parties are comfortable in each other’s presence – in other words, they know each other. One cannot walk up to a complete stranger on the street and expect them to like you or even listen to you, let alone want to live with you, or even trust you to put them in a hotel room. The vast majority of advocates have never opened their door to a homeless person, but why would anyone expect them to? Why would we expect anyone who has a home to do so, especially for a stranger?
The animal shelter analogy is particularly apt here. Dogs and cats are nearly universally loved, yet many thousands are euthanized every year and Orange County spent something like $65 million on a new animal shelter, because the rate at which new unhoused cats and dogs appear is faster than the rate at which they are adopted. Despite the efforts of the “best” advocates, even those who have opened their doors to a homeless person, the rate at which people are becoming homeless exceeds the rate at which they are being housed by anyone, even the organizations whose job it is to do so.
But the argument that advocates should house the homeless all by themselves persists because it gives the people who have no intention of helping a rationale for their inaction.
Thomas Fielder has been involved in homeless advocacy for more than 2 years, with Housing is a Human Right OC. He has a Master’s degree in biology and worked in biomedical research his entire career, the last 26 years of which was spent at UC-Irvine. He helped his wife raise 3 children in Anaheim, where they have lived for 36 years.
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