In the debate about what should be done about, for example, the problem of homelessness, one invariably soon hears reference to the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. The former, of course, are generally seen as worthy of our help, but the latter are another story. They are thought to be in their condition because of their own avoidable actions, which justifies our reluctance to help them.
It goes further. Not only are we unwilling to help them, we actively impede them when they try to fend for themselves. We lock up our waste, and restaurants render food inedible before throwing it away lest some poor person eat it without paying. We walk past them, looking the other way. We pretend that they do not exist.
What are we saying when we take this attitude? We are saying that these people behaved so badly that they deserve to be cast out of society, and denied even a roof over their heads. What exactly is this behavior that deserves such a punishment? For punishment it certainly is. I went to an English public school, which Americans would call a private school. Certain kinds of social infractions among the boys, such as for instance informing on another boy to a teacher, would be punished by one’s schoolmates by being sent to Coventry, which meant effective banishment from the group. The boy being punished would be completely ignored by his classmates, who would not even acknowledge his existence for the period of the punishment. This was a serious and much feared stricture. Similarly several religious groups practice shunning, where even family members are forbidden to have any dealings with the shunned member. Again it is a very serious form of punishment.
This is exactly the way we treat the poor and most especially the indigent, the homeless. Wherever possible we ignore them completely, and when we do acknowledge their existence it is usually in a disapproving or at best condescending way. We deny them access to the resources they need for their survival even though those resources are readily available. We prefer to destroy things rather than let someone to have them without paying. So they are certainly being actively punished.
What are they being punished for? One common response is that they made bad choices. They are certainly not alone in that. Everybody makes bad choices, and we do not put them out on the street on that account. Maybe they took drugs. Again, everybody takes drugs of one kind or another. We have not found any civilization that did not know about and use mind-altering substances. Whatever behavior you can point to that is common among homeless people can be found among the entire population, often in much worse forms. Yet we do not punish these people by throwing them out on the streets.
The incidence of criminality among the homeless is not unusually high, and often involves what are termed “quality of life” crimes such as littering and disturbing the peace, or at the most petty theft or minor violence among themselves. We do not find gangs of homeless people attacking regular citizens or robbing convenience stores. Successful criminals might be expected to be able to afford a place to live. It is unlikely that it was a life of crime that resulted in homelessness. Most crime at that level is caused by, not the cause of homelessness.
The exception to this is released prisoners, who make up a significant segment of the homeless, including a particularly unfortunate group, sex offenders. Here we cannot say that their plight is directly caused by their crime, which they have already paid society’s price to expiate. It is caused by the fact that we continue ot punish offenders even when they have served their time, making it difficult for them to obtain employment and be accepted back into regular society. Sex offenders experience these difficulties in even more acute form. They are forbidden to live or even go within a certain distance of schools and playgrounds, which often makes entire towns off limits to them. They are forced to reveal their status to prospective landlords and neighbors, with fairly predictable results.
All of this is the result, not of the actual risks that they represent to society, but of our unreasonable response to the issue. This is not the place to examine in depth the question of whether the offenses that landed them on the lists should even be classified as crimes, but there is little question that there are a great many people on the Sex Offenders Registry that pose no danger to society at all.
Even if you can show that someone did make bad choices that landed them on the street, does that make them undeserving of help? Can you really blame someone for their choices? They make their life choices based on what they have been taught, both the messages that society has drummed into them since birth, and the lessons of their own experience and observations. They cannot be held responsible for their upbringing, they did not choose the circumstances of their lives. You can point to those who started from the same circumstances at made a sustainable life for themselves, but the only difference between them and the homeless is sheer dumb luck. Maybe they had a good role model, or a kind teacher or something that pushed them towards the right path, and the homeless person did not. The French have a saying that to understand all is to forgive all. If we truly understood all of the circumstances that made someone act the way they do, we would find ourselves unable to blame them for it.
But we are not considering bad choices in general, only bad choices that might lead to homelessness, and it is very hard to find such causes in reality. The kinds of circumstances that most often lead to homelessness are loss of employment (which, it is true, might itself have been occasioned by bad behavior of some kind), divorce, sickness, and simply the failure to see to one’s own interests. There are countless stories of people who gave up their own lives to nurse someone through their final illness, perhaps with the promise of an inheritance, only to find that all the money was spent on the medical care.
The truth is that if we are going to draw moral conclusions from peoples’ circumstances we might consider that poverty is the sign of someone who has not ordered his affairs with a view to his own gain; in other words someone who has acted unselfishly. A wealthy person, on the other hand, has clearly made sure that his interests were well served, which must be classified as selfish behavior. The fact that such behavior is encouraged in our culture does not make it any less selfish. At the same time the moral values we profess to believe in would favor unselfish behavior over selfish behavior, so we should, if we were true to our professed values, admire the destitute person and despise the wealthy one.
The other argument that is put forward is that they refuse to take advantage of help that is available, and choose to live the lives they do in spite of available better opportunities. If they were really doing this, it would truly be irrational behavior or perhaps a sign of mental illness, so this would surely qualify them for help since they are clearly incapable of helping themselves. Really, of course, they are not passing up a better opportunity in favor of a worse one. We offer the kinds of help we think they should want, or, worse, the kind we think would be good for them, and give no thought to their actual needs and the circumstances of their lives. The so-called help that is available that the homeless are accused of not wanting to use consists mainly of shelters. Shelters, however, at best solve only part of the problem, which is a place to sleep. They do nothing to solve the issue of where they spend the daytime hours. Almost all shelters require their clients to leave quite early in the morning, with all of their belongings, and they can only return at a certain hour in the evening. In addition they are usually located at some distance from populated areas, owing to the reluctance of the population to have them in their neighborhoods. However the homeless person has to find a place to be during the day, and that place is inevitably going to be a populated area.
It is not generally considered that a home is much more than a place to sleep. It is also the place you can go when there is no other place for you to be. Without such a place you have the constant necessity of being somewhere at all times, and if there is no place at all that you are welcome to be this becomes a serious problem. Your choices are to find places where you can be invisible or to be somewhere you can blend in with others. Invisibility is relatively impractical in the daytime, so most homeless gather in busy commercial areas during the day.
The result is that the places the homeless spend their days are distant from where the shelters are generally located. This may not seem much of an issue to most people, who are used to traveling considerable distances between home and work and recreational activities, but without a car the picture is quite different. Public transportation outside the larger cities (and even within many of them) is virtually unusable, so already using a shelter will involve spending much of the day getting back and forth, with all of your belongings. Add to all of this the fact that shelters are generally first come first served, so you may well spend the time and effort to get there only to be turned away, and be faced with having to get back to your resource base, and it is easy to see why a shelter might not be a practical choice for many homeless people.
So we cannot say that these people are unreasonably refusing available help, and none of the other arguments we have considered seem to offer good reasons why we should refuse these people help. We do not apply the same standards to other kinds of help; if someone is drowning, we do not ask whether they did something foolish to put them in this plight before helping them. When someone’s house burns down we do not refuse help on the grounds that their carelessness caused the fire.
There is only one attribute that distinguishes the homeless from the rest of the population, and that is poverty. This social punishment is being inflicted upon them with no due process because they are poor.