It is a radical idea: If you have fallen to the bottom of the social pit, found yourself without money, a home, or possessions, and cannot find work in the private sector of the free market, you can go to your city government for a job.
In what is reminiscent of Depression-era New Deal programs that gave work to millions and long-held socialist ideals of guaranteed employment for the poor, some U.S. and Canadian cities are using tax wealth for wages to homeless workers, who clean up and improve communities.
Each year, 3.5 million Americans (1.35 million children) will experience homelessness at some point. 18.5 million homes stand empty in the U.S., waiting for citizens who can afford them, the mark of a social system where goods and services are distributed according to purchasing power, ensuring those with the least purchasing power also have the greatest need for goods and services.
On any given night over 600,000 Americans are homeless, living in shelters, transitional homes, cars, parks, tent cities, or under bridges. 23% are children under 18; 36% of homeless people are homeless with a family; about 10% are veterans; over 40% are disabled; 20-25% suffer from mental illness. 90% of homeless women are domestic abuse victims, most fleeing their tormentors.
Homelessness is both caused and perpetuated by poverty, job loss, eviction or foreclosure, domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, disability, and other factors.
The homeless speak of humiliation, stigmatization, feeling “disconnected from the world,” working “full-time” to survive each day, being denied services at business because of their appearance when they do have cash, denied emergency room care when they needed it because they were suspected of faking to “get out of the rain.” A survey showed about 60% of homeless people perceive discrimination from law enforcement and businesses.
Perhaps this stems from widespread American stereotyping of the poor as being lazy, lacking ambition, willpower, work ethic, common sense, even intelligence…despite the fact that nearly half of Americans now live in poverty or in low-income households.
Even social workers aren’t exempt from this stereotyping. A homeless man, Lars Eighner, remembered:
My interview with the social worker made it clear only three explanations of homelessness would be considered: drug addiction, alcoholism, and psychiatric disorder. The more successful I was in ruling out one of these explanations, the more certain the others would become.
Professional people like to believe this. They like to believe that no misfortune could cause them to lose their own privileged places. They like to believe that homelessness is the fault of the homeless–that the homeless have special flaws not common to the human condition, or at least the homeless have flaws that professional people are immune to. (A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare)
Albuquerque, New Mexico in September 2015 began a program that pays a small crew of homeless workers $9 an hour (and a small lunch) to clean up blighted areas of the city. It is paid for through both private donations and tax funds.
Mayor Richard J. Berry said:
It’s about the dignity of work… If we can get your confidence up a little, get a few dollars in your pocket, get you stabilized to the point where you want to reach out for services, whether the mental health services or substance abuse services — that’s the upward spiral that I’m looking for… The indignity of having to beg for money cuts through the soul.
One of the workers, Ramona Beletso, who has slept in cardboard boxes and struggled with alcohol use, said, “I worked for my money. And that feels good.”
Theoretically, initiatives such as this need not exclude disabled persons, either, as workers can be paid for non-physical tasks that improve their communities, such as helping children learn to read at public libraries.
At about the same time that program launched, Reno, Nevada started paying its own small group of homeless residents $10 an hour for three days of work each week to clean up the Truckee River. The city will provide recommendation letters and financial and interview training to help workers find employment in the private sector.
A councilwoman said:
The public has expected something creative and different from us, so I’m glad that we have committed funding to this. It’s not only about instilling pride in the workers from a good hard-day’s work, but also cleaning up the river for the community.
A homeless worker, through tears, promised at a press conference, “We will make you proud.”
In both Reno and Albuquerque, supervising crews are on hand during the work shifts.
A similar program, this one funded through donations and a tax on businesses within a Business Improvement Zone, can be found in Canada. Winnipeg pays homeless persons $11 an hour to pick up trash, shovel snow, and other tasks. In 2014, 86 people worked at various times for the city.
An organizer noted it gives workers experience and references for later use, and that the program lets
People see their capabilities and believe in themselves again. They’ve still got gas in the tank. They’re still capable, and it’s a catalyst to get back into the workforce… When we go out you see innate gifts…the leaders, helpers, caretakers…
A worker named Randy Malbranck discussed the competition for spots on the crews: “You don’t always get in but sometimes — usually — you do.” Oftentimes, people who don’t “get in” end up volunteering. He praised the organizers as “tremendous,” and the job has allowed him to move closer to his goal of renting an apartment. “I think it’s very good. If somebody needs work or needs a little bit of money, it helps… The next step is to just get a full-time job.”
In Albuquerque and Winnipeg, people acknowledge that sometimes paychecks are used for drugs or alcohol or other wasteful things that will perpetuate their societal condition. Malbranck said, “There are some people who use the money for the needs that got them here in the first place. It’s unfortunate, but you have to work with that.” Yet these are not handouts. People are earning money, and spending it how they will. Treatment for mental illness and substance abuse is not an unimportant part of solving homelessness.
Inspired by what’s happening in these cities, others, like Victoria in Canada, are planning to follow suit. It is part of a more general effort to find humane, effective ways of ending the humiliation and human suffering of homelessness, not just through government initiatives like jobs or housing vouchers, but also private ones.
In Nashville, Madison, and Austin, for example, individuals, ministries, and social activist groups have built tiny homes for the homeless, most charging a small rent. A study in Charlotte, North Carolina found that building even free housing for the homeless is cheaper than leaving them on the streets; massive health care and incarceration costs are cut when people are housed.
Perhaps it is as Nelson Mandela said: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
All this is in stark contrast to the barbaric ways other cities are addressing homelessness. Many major cities, like Washington, D.C., have wiped out homeless camps. A Huffington Post writer summarized:
Cities are increasingly making homelessness a crime. A 2014 survey of 187 cities…found that 24 percent of cities make it a city-wide crime to beg in public, 33 percent make it illegal to stand around or loiter anyplace in the city, 18 percent make it a crime to sleep anywhere in public, 43 percent make it illegal to sleep in your car, and 53 percent make it illegal to sit or lie down in particular public places. And the number of cities criminalizing homelessness is steadily increasing.
Some cities and businesses around the world install spikes under bridges and redesign benches in an attempt to drive away homeless people looking for a place to sleep.