Friday, February 28, 2014

The End of Homelessness

I suspect that homelessness, like hunger, ignorance and other forms of poverty, will be with us for awhile longer, despite the best efforts of many government and social programs designed to bring about its end. With the rapid pace of change and the upheavals they can bring, it seems unlikely that individuals won’t continue to lose their way and find themselves falling beyond the edge of the social spaces that most of us live within. And, like those viruses and bacteria that mutate their way past the vaccines and medicines designed to stop them, homelessness may well take on different forms, appearances and manifestations.
At the Streets to Homes program, where I work, we’re seeing some differences in the landscape of homelessness that present as challenges. For about 8 years S2H has been out in the streets of Toronto, patiently and diligently seeking out the hardcore homeless, those who avoid the available shelter system in preference for sidewalk grates, abandoned buildings and alleyways, garages, the undersides of freeways and parklands. And we’ve had an effect. Though a lot of the more challenging cases of homelessness persist, particularly among those with serious mental illness, the landscape is changing. In a recent team meeting, a long time supervisor said that when the program began, workers were expected to house a minimum of eight persons per month. These days, we’re doing well to average one or two per month. Those one or two are likely to require as much work as the eight used to, but the reality is, the numbers just aren’t there anymore.
This should be cause to celebrate. Except that, the successes seem almost to work against us. Housing numbers decline and this generates pressures to justify the program budget and the jobs it sustains. And the social workers who fill these jobs, and who have played a huge role in bringing about the change, begin to worry for their own security. What happens when the work to which one has molded oneself ceases to exist? We feel a degree of empathy for the small towns given a death sentence when the factory shuts down, and for workers in obsolete professions struggling for a livelihood. But, on the other hand, time marches on. Societies and their needs change. And we must adapt, or risk being left behind.
So I wonder, as the face of homelessness changes, how will the field adapt? And if homelessness were to end, what would happen to us – whose jobs and even entire careers are grounded in the fight to end it? We want an end to homelessness, but not an end to our livelihoods, to our valued roles, to the work that defines us. In a paradoxical way, when positive change threatens the security of the changer, a desire is generated to preserve the status quo. This phenomenon was noted by the sociologist Max Weber in his work on the tendency of organizations and bureaucracies to outlast the conditions they were formed to address.
I don’t recall what if any answer Weber presented for this resistance to change. But my guess is that any response will involve even more change. The changer too will have to embrace change, not just for the thing struggled against, but also for self.
I’m reminded of a favorite film, Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai. It’s set in a time when many samurai no longer have lords to serve, or wars to wage. They are aimless. When a village of farmers needs defence, seven of these unemployed warriors now have purpose. They win their battle, successfully killing off the marauding bandits, most of them giving their own lives to the cause. But at the film’s end, they are no longer needed, or even wanted. The villagers are grateful, but a village is no place for samurai, and they’d just as soon have them gone. Two of the three remaining warriors prepare to resume their aimless wandering. In the end, the only one of them that finds happiness is the third. For he gives up his life as a samurai to stay with the villagers, to become one of them.
I think that we crusaders against homelessness will have to accept the ongoing and inevitable change in our strategies, tactics, and in our very roles, if we hope to someday end homelessness without becoming homeless ourselves.