Dismantling the systems of greed and fear and racism that got us in this mess

Photo by Gabriele Diwald on Unsplash

In my recent article, Why we aren’t ending homelessness in Los Angeles, I asserted that we in Los Angeles (and many other places) are struggling in our efforts to end homelessness because our thinking is too small. We are trying to tackle a complex problem with simple solutions. I argued:

The current problem of homelessness and housing insecurity has resulted from decades of structural racism, disinvestment, displacement and increasing economic and social inequality.

I suggested four things to get at the systemic issues that cause homelessness:

  • stop doing things that exacerbate the problem: encampment sweeps, criminalization, shelter without links to permanent housing, and evicting and displacing low-income people

I received lots of positive feedback on the article, one of the most insightful from Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and a key leader in the “impact investing” movement in philanthropy.

I was appreciative for Antony’s positive reaction (though I did have to look up the meaning of “cri de coeur”), given his professional stature and intellectual leadership, as well as his personal commitment to social change and history (he grew up in South Africa during apartheid so he knows something about moral stains).

I was particularly intrigued by how he phrased what we need to do about ending homelessness. Because the causes are systemic and structural, we cannot tinker around the edges: we must dismantle those systems that got us in this mess. I had named racism, but he calls out greed and fear. Racism, greed and fear are experienced at an individual level, but what I am really interested in here is how they are part of the social, economic and political structures that create the conditions for homelessness to flourish.

Racism

For the past decade that I’ve been working on this issue, racism was very rarely mentioned as a cause of homelessness. People have long been aware of the racial disparities in the homeless population (with African Americans being highly overrepresented), but there was little explicit discussion or action on addressing them. As evidenced at the recent National Conference on Ending Homelessness, the homelessness sector is finally recognizing the fact that any attempt to end and prevent homelessness must address the systemic racism and discrimination that has created such inequities in housing, employment, criminal justice, and health and social services that create and exacerbate homelessness.

In my previous article I mentioned the work of LA Homeless Services Authority’s Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness, which provided recommendations for addressing the over representation of African Americans in the homeless population in Los Angeles. Other communities are following suit, aided by assessment tools provided by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and HUD.

But more than assessment and reports, we need serious conversations and actions on how policies and practices based on white supremacy are maintaining the status quo of discrimination and actions to rectify the inequities. These are not easy or comfortable conversations, but they absolutely have to happen if we are to get to tearing down the system of racism.

Greed

Housing is a basic human need, but it is also a source of great economic activity and wealth with an enormous influence on the overall U.S. economy. Despite residential investment being a relatively small part of of the economy (about 3–5% of GDP according to the National Association of Home Builders), housing is a significant part of consumer spending (consumption spending on housing services is 12–13% of GDP) and, as we saw in the 2008 market crash, housing finance problems can reverberate throughout the economy.

Housing in the U.S. is largely seen as a commodity, both by individuals and families as their primary wealth building strategy as well as by real estate and financial investors. The result is that housing costs eat up an increasing amount of income, pushing people into more precarious housing situations and even homelessness. Los Angeles is among the most “cost burdened” housing markets in the U.S., with nearly half of households paying more than 30% of their income on housing and an astounding 600,000 people living in households spending more than 90% of income on housing.

Despite widespread public and political concern in states like California about the lack of affordable housing, policy responses focus mostly on increasing supply and density, while efforts to contain rents and preserve affordable housing have stalled or been limited. New development across the country in recent years has largely been in the high end, luxury sector, and in this era when income inequality is reaching levels not seen since right before the Great Depression perhaps the persistence and increases in homelessness are a warning bell of imminent social and economic chaos if we do not reign in the greed that is rampant in the housing market. Our housing system is set up for the benefit of people developing and providing housing, not for those who need a safe place to live. Until we see housing as a human right and avenue for opportunity, rather than a mere commodity for extracting income and wealth, we will not rein in the system of greed that contributes to homelessness.

Fear

Perhaps the most surprising, and insightful, observation by Antony was how a system of fear has gotten us in this mess of homelessness. The first connection I made was to the fear that people have of our neighbors who are homeless. All you need to do to experience this is attend a community meeting where a new shelter or supportive housing development is being discussed or read the vitriol on neighborhood websites like Nextdoor and in comments to news articles about homelessness. Last year, I heard john a. powell give a talk that started with a slide with this declaration: “The problem of ‘Othering’ is the problem of the 21st century.” In his talk he shared a chart from research on perception of societal groups (e.g. racial and class groups, age, gender), and the one outlier group with the lowest perception of competence and warmth were homeless people.[i]

Figure 1 in Fiske et al., “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and cognition.”

There is certainly a lot of fear of “those people,” leading to NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) opposition to housing and other facilities designed to help individuals and families get out of homelessness, as well as policies that criminalize homelessness (e.g. restricting panhandling, camping, sleeping in vehicles, etc.). Despite these perceptions, people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime and supportive housing can actually reduce crime in communities. Homeowners fear that providing housing in their neighborhood will negatively affect their property values, but research does not bear this out.

Dismantling this system of fear will require both policy and community solutions. Policies designed to criminalize or push homelessness away without any evidence that they actually help people transition from homelessness to housing should be abandoned. At the same time, we need “anti-othering” public education and relationship building to help people get over their fear of residents who are poor or experiencing homelessness. Neighborhood residents in Los Angeles are organizing to get to know their homeless neighbors, host storytelling events, volunteer and embrace solutions in their communities. Again, this is a long-term effort that must extend to how people view those at-risk of homelessness (e.g. experiencing poverty, incarceration, child welfare and other public systems) if we truly want to get out of this mess.

Implications

I started this article several weeks ago, before the recent mass shootings and reactions that have catapulted white supremacy and white nationalism to the forefront of our national conscience. As I reflect on this title again, it is clear that dismantling the systems of greed, fear and racism has much broader implications than ending homelessness. Tearing down those walls to get to the root causes that will end homelessness might even help create a more just and equitable society over all, free from the violence and hate that is unfortunately so prevalent today. This is not a simple or short-term effort, but it is more urgent than ever.

[i] What is meant by warmth and competence from the research article: “According to recent theory and research in social cognition, the warmth dimension captures traits that are related to perceived intent, including friendliness, helpful- ness, sincerity, trustworthiness and morality, whereas the competence dimension reflects traits that are related to perceived ability, including intelligence, skill, creativity and efficacy.”

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader who has worked in the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. https://billpitkin.net