Steve Mahoney: Can we end homelessness without changing our economic system?

bLast week, I wrote an article on the effectiveness of supportive housing for solving homelessness.

This week,  I wanted to build on that momentum and try to more adequately address some common explanations and solutions to poverty and where supportive housing fits in this model.

To understand oppression, poverty, and homelessness, we must understand the causes and the sociocultural explanations used to justify it. In their book “Introducing Liberation Theology” professors, liberation theologians, and brothers Leonardo and Clodovis Boff provide three explanations commonly used in our society to justify oppression, and the solutions associated with each explanation.

They start with the empirical explanation, or poverty as vice. This approach is the most superficial explanation of poverty and is commonly used by the uninformed, fiscally conservative, and rugged individualist. The writers say that this approach attributes the causes of poverty to laziness, ignorance, and human wickedness. This explanation fails to address the causes on any meaningful level. Their solution to the problem is aid and philanthropy on the individual level. The poor are treated as objects of pity.

The next explanation they give is the functional explanation, or poverty as backwardness. This explanation is used by the liberal establishment to justify and correct poverty. People who use this approach treat poverty as something that just shouldn’t be, but will be fixed in due time due to development, loans, technological progress, and socio-economic reform. The solution is progressive improvement of the existing system and the poor are treated as passive objects of action taken by others. The writers say that this approach sees poverty as a collective problem, but fails to see it as conflictive, meaning as the product of the socio-economic and political systems where the rich get richer at the expensive of the poor who only get poorer. This trend is perfectly illustrated by the current situation in the United States and by the rising levels of income and wealth inequality.

The final explanation the writers give is the dialectical explanation, or poverty as oppression. The brothers explain: “This sees poverty as the product of the economic organization of society itself, which exploits some- the workers- and excludes others from the production process- the underemployed, unemployed, and all those marginalized in one way or another.” The writers say that this explanation can also be called the historico-structural approach in that it sees poverty as a collective and conflictive phenomenon that can only be fixed by replacing the present social system with an alternative system. They say that the way out is revolution, and that here the poor stand up as subjects rather than objects to be acted on by others.

- - Homeless man John Wayne and others wait in a parking lot near LP Field after Metro police had them move their possessions from under the Shelby Street Bridge. Wayne said police have been nice about giving them time to move. A recent count by a national organization found 1,542 homeless people living in Nashville in January 2005. - -.JOHN PARTIPILO/THE TENNESSEAN

While supportive housing is great and helps many people, it is ultimately a functional approach to solving homelessness, a Band-Aid solution that fails to address the sociocultural and political structures that oppress people and place them in dire situations in the first place.

This temporary solution is great as long as the state can pull funding and individuals are feeling generous enough to donate, but what happens when the funding isn’t available? We end up right back where we started because the causes were not adequately addressed and the social structures that allowed this were not replaced. While the state of Connecticut may end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016, what about 2017, 2018, and every year after?

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