Homelessness is often described as a problem we must solve—and Los Angeles city and county now have expensive plans to do so. And as George Mason professor Craig Willse shows in his book, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States, that industry is designed to manage costs rather than challenge the mechanisms that create and maintain homelessness.
Of course there will be folks who benefit from the infusion of millions of dollars into the homeless services industry.
But if we accept Willse’s thesis, then expanding the industry doesn’t bring us any closer to ending homelessness.
I found that life-long courses of trauma and poverty caused housing insecurity that led people to become homeless.
I also found that housing insecurity remains even once a person makes it from the streets to supportive housing.
So the state of emergency and funds appear less humanitarian and more aimed at masking the visible reminders of our disparate economic and social systems.
As downtown Los Angeles gentrifies and a palpable tension between the newer tenants and those living on the streets grows, the pressure to better manage the homeless population mounts.He told me he about his aspirations to go to college and get a good job.Larry hoped to overcome the bad decisions he had made, he said, but the economy didn’t have a place for people with his record and background, and the legal system termed him a failure and pulled him back in after every slip or relapse.Many of the folks that I’ve met through my work became homeless because of the way their life and choices were constrained by forces outside their control.Larry (I’m required to use a pseudonym as a condition of my work and research with homeless people) grew up in a poor neighborhood in South Los Angeles.I completed the research at Lamp Community, a nonprofit homeless services organization in the city of Los Angeles.I did life history interviews with people in the housing program, interviewed staff and administrators, all the while documenting my observations.That hides the life experiences and structures behind their troubles.In my research as a graduate student in applied anthropology at California State University, Long Beach, I explored some of the limitations of supportive housing as a response to homelessness.Through false interpretations, I fear we have constructed an imaginary chronically homeless person—mentally ill, with substance abuse and other issues.That hides the life experiences and structures behind their troubles—everything from lesser education for those who are poor and have special needs, to an economy that limits social mobility, to a criminal justice system that swallows up poor people, to health care systems that underserve the poor and mentally ill, to housing markets that don’t provide enough safe and affordable options.