It seems every street in San Francisco has a homeless person on it. Every day I pass them and at night most shop fronts has one huddled in it. The streets are littered with bundles of clothes which turn out to be people trying to sleep. We all pass them and feel pangs of guilt, often taking the easier option of ignoring them. Yet there doesn’t seem to be an easy solutions or ways to help. We want to help, but don’t want to encourage begging. Is dropping coins into their paper cup really the best thing we can do?
During my stay abroad I regularly heard (particularly from San Francisco locals) the usual talk about how the homeless were too lazy to get a job. Friends insisted that the homeless couldn’t be bothered to work even though there were plenty of jobs in the offering. Further stories were told in all sincerity where my friend swore he saw homeless guys getting up after a day of begging and changing into nice clothes and hopping into cars. He genuinely believed that homeless people were just in it for the money. He is certainly an extreme case, but it is common for people to suspect that the homeless are “undeserving” of charity. Most people qualify this by saying some are genuinely suffering while others are merely lazy, but I cannot see how anyone could be unmotivated to improve their life after sleeping in the bitter cold, going hungry and living without any safety or possessions.
One thing noticed by myself and my friends is that there are far more homeless in America than in Ireland. Part of this is due to differences in population size, but even proportionally, the problem is much worse in America. This seems to be due to the lack of services and safety nets in America. The much idolised individual spirit means that people are on their own, which is fine when things are going well, but means that if you run into trouble there is no one to help you out. America is famous the world over for its treatment of the rich and infamous for its (lack of) treatment of the poor. If you fall in America it is incredibly hard to get back up. Social welfare is inadequate but what private business is going to hire a homeless person?
I also noticed was that many of the homeless seemed to suffer from mental health problems. They could be seen mumbling incoherently or simply unaware of their surroundings. There is a cause and effect element to this in that mental illness often causes people to lose their job, their home, while sleeping rough also damages their mental health. This is another area where America fails the most vulnerable, as healthcare is extraordinarily expensive and far beyond the reach of the poor. During the 80s mental hospitals suffered severe cutbacks and as a result many patients were dumped onto the streets. This has continued to the day as the homeless are not a politically powerful or well connected group. When it comes to deciding whether to cut taxes or provide services for the homeless, cutting taxes will always win out, the results of which are seen on streets where dirty ragged homeless cower in the doorways of glamorous skyscrapers of the financial district.
One thing that became clear to me is that I cannot afford to be homeless. No if this sounds bizarre, do a little math. If a homeless person wants to get in off the street, they can either go to a woefully overcrowded shelter or to a hostel. The problem with hostels is that they are exorbitantly expensive to live in, especially in San Francisco. They start at $40-50 per night (and the homeless person would probably have to pay more as the cheapest ones book out quickly and without the internet it is not possible to find the cheapest places. Also many places may refuse to take a dirty homeless person in). One friend had to pay $500 for one dingy room for a week in the ghetto (he moved after 3 people got shot on his doorstep). In comparison, by sharing with other people and getting a long lease, I was able to get an apartment with utilities for around $10 a day.
Second of all, cooking at home is relatively cheap, only $2-3 for a dinner by using the oven in the apartment and storing the food in the fridge. Having neither an oven nor a fridge the homeless must buy their food every day, which is far more expensive (even a sandwich or a Sub or a fast food meal costs about $7). Furthermore there is the bitter cold and the costs of trying to stave it off (those cups of coffee add up). Then there is the damage to your health that sleeping rough does, one thing I could not afford is medical bills. For my first week in America my friends had to stay in a hostel until their house was ready, by the end of the stay their sizeable reserve of money was near exhaustion. The simple fact is that being homeless is far more expensive than anything I could afford.
Helping the homeless is one reason why we need government collective action. You see if only I give some money to a beggar, it will have little effect on his life. There is also the fear that the money may be wasted on drink or drugs. Everyone therefore tries to ignore the problem and hope that someone else will deal with it. As a result the homeless get hardly any help. If instead every person each gave a trivial amount, a dollar or even less, then collectively we would be able to hugely help the homeless. That is to say while individual action achieves little, if we all collectively act, which can greatly help the problem. That is how taxes work.
Secondly, I don’t want to merely slightly affect the short term position of the homeless but rather make a long term impact. I don’t just want to feed him today knowing that he will be hungry tomorrow. What the homeless need are long term housing, cheap food and often mental healthcare. However, I can’t drop any of those into a paper cup; by their nature they require collective action. I cannot personally build a homeless shelter and to solve the problem I need others to help. Hence even someone who refuses to tip beggars can support using taxes to build shelters and health clinics. They have the added benefit in that the government can impose checks to separate the “deserving” from the “undeserving” homeless.
When asked about their condition, the homeless say that the worst part is not the dirt or the filth or that they are hungry all the time or that they have nowhere decent to even take a piss or that their clothes are ragged or their lack of money. What they say the worst part is the loneliness. It’s the fact that when they wake up in the morning they know that they will not speak to a single person all day. That no one will listen to them, notice them or even care that they are alive. This is why so many homeless have dogs despite being an extra mouth to feed; they are at least someone to care for and someone who loves them. I cannot describe the tenderness I saw one homeless man had for his dog and how he held it. At least he was not completely alone in the world.
What to do about the homeless is not an easy question to answer nor are there any simple solutions. There is always the risk of moral hazard of encouraging the very practices we wish to remove. I don’t know about you, but I would have no problem with paying a few extra cent in taxes knowing it went to shelters, kitchens and clinics that can address the long term problem of homelessness.
(I hate to engage in self-glorification, but I have been lucky enough to be nominated for the Blog Award Ireland in the categories of Best Political Blog and Best Youth Blog. I would greatly appreciate if you could vote for my entry in the Best Blog Post category here. Just hold cntrl and f, enter Robert and my entry will pop up. Thank you very much)