Sunday, January 26, 2014

Positive case for helping the homeless

I want to see if I can make more of a positive case for helping out the homeless (<< -- see that link for background) with free housing, as opposed to things like criminalizing homelessness or sleeping in public. To do this, I'm going to see if I can draw on empowerment ethics to show that it's more rational (not to mention compassionate) to provide even no-strings-attached assistance. I'll also explore a couple of other ways to look at the issue.

Empowerment Ethics.
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully flourish while living on the streets of a country like America. Mere survival becomes a struggle, as one's thoughts must be directed to finding food and shelter before even considering the possibility of being empowered to the best of one's abilities, and thus being a functioning and flourishing member of society. Those of us who can simply walk to the fridge to grab a snack, and who don't have to wonder where we will sleep tonight, have the privilege of being able to think beyond mere survival in a way that the homeless generally cannot. We can focus on empowering ourselves.

But to empower ourselves to maximal effectiveness is only possible if we empower others. When we empower others, their flourishing is an expression of our own power to the extent that our own power was used to empower them. If we're trying to concentrate only on ourselves, we will never reach the full power we are capable of attaining. Thus, it is not only more rational to help out others when we can, it is an ethical obligation.

Not everyone is in a position to directly help out the homeless, but if we support programs that do, even if all the support we are able to offer is voting for officials who support such programs, then to that extent our power is extended through the people that those programs help. Giving a free apartment to the homeless provides them with an excellent foundation to build on, allowing them to think beyond mere survival. When able to think, and more importantly act, beyond the mere needs of survival, people can begin to think and act in ways that lead them to genuine flourishing, and to the empowerment and flourishing of those around them, i.e., society in general. In other words, by helping the homeless to flourish, we help ourselves to flourish. It's therefore in our own interest to help, as well as being the compassionate thing to do, and the thing that respects the dignity of the less privileged (for how can it respect their dignity to leave them in such straits when we can help?). 

Golden Rule.
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I've always thought that the Golden Rule was a decent place to start thinking about ethics, even if it's not an end point. Well, let's consider it in connection with helping out the homeless. Obviously, many would be happy to have someone give them a free home (anyone care to pay off my mortgage?), but I do realize that there are plenty of others who would only want that home if they felt they had earned it.

And there's a sense of pride in me that can understand exactly where such a sentiment comes from. Gifts can be nice at holidays and birthdays, but at other times, it's more than nice to know that you were able to use your own skills, abilities, and effort to to procure food, money, medical help, shelter, and all the other nice things that people want and need. There's a sense of accomplishment that can go with this, perhaps of challenges conquered, and proof that "have what it takes."

So it makes sense when looking at "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" that some would say "ok, I want to earn the good things that come to me, and not rely on free stuff, so I will treat others the same, and not give them things --at least major, important things-- for free. Birthday gifts and such, sure, but not the major stuff."

For some, this rises to the level of a moral imperative, which would seem to rule out the option of giving the homeless free apartments that they get to keep, even if they fail to become self-sufficient. To which I would like to offer the phrase: "pay it forward."

"Earning it" seems to be something that people only think of in the sense of "first." That is, they feel they must earn the good things before they can have the good things. But in some situations, that becomes nearly impossible, if not actually impossible. Homelessnes, I contend, is sometimes one of these cases. And in such cases, I suggest that "earning it" can be done after the fact. Once an individual has a solid foundation to build on, i.e., shelter, one can begin the actual process of actually earning it ("pay it forward") by getting work (if that's an option for you), and giving back to society. Take your good fortune, and use your abilities and effort to help others (or even just spend your new money to help the economy keep moving --but don't forget to take care of yourself as well), and in this way, earn that good fortune. Karma isn't real, so sometimes we need to make our own "karma."

And this, I think, is part of the reasoning behind the Utah plan of providing a caseworker, along with the home, to assist the previously homeless person in becoming self-sufficient (or at least as self-sufficient as it's possible to be without being a hermit who lives completely off the land). It's giving a platform from which they can actually work toward earning that home. I doubt these homes are extravagant affairs, nor do I see any reason why they should be. A basic efficiency apartment would be enough to let someone stand up and cross the starting line of being a productive citizen.

Yes, some will fail in that endeavor. Life is full of risks, and that is one of them in a project that gives away housing. But if we're going to follow the Golden Rule in this matter, I thing that is a risk that needs to be taken.  

Utilitarian Happiness.
Some forms of utilitarianism state that the only intrinsic good is Happiness, and that the moral action is whatever action results in a net gain of Happiness in the world. I am likely missing some subtleties, but based on those two simple premises, it is not hard to see that assisting the homeless, including by providing free housing, is most likely to result in a net gain of happiness for the world. Not only is it apparently cheaper than alternatives which basically criminalize being homeless, but it is very likely to reduce the suffering of most (if not all) of those who benefit from such programs.

The most obvious reduction in suffering (which would lead to a net gain in happiness) is in keeping one protected from the elements, and eliminating the stress that can come from not knowing where you're going to sleep that night. Less obvious, perhaps, is the mental illness factor. Many of the homeless are mentally ill, with things like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. Being on the streets makes it more difficult to deal with such things. Having an apartment won't cure mental illness, of course, but it does provide an opportunity to reduce some of the stress that frequently contributes to the symptoms of mental illness, making it worse. With a reduction in the symptoms comes the opportunity to concentrate on other things that potentially can help in mitigating symptoms, such as therapy, meds, and possibly even getting a job and socializing (anecdotaley, having a reason to get up in the morning can be very helpful).

All in all, I really can't see much of a reason not to provide housing assistance if the goal is either a reduction of suffering, or an increase in happiness (two very similar things).


  1. Hi there Nathan. My name is Cameron and I was just reading up on your blog. I had a quick question and was hoping that you could email me back when you have a moment. I really appreciate it, thanks!


    1. That would be difficult, as you haven't provided you're email address on your profile. Why not just ask your question here?