On Choices and Homelessness

My name is Mark Schimpf, and I have worked with community development, poverty, and homelessness since 2014. I have worked directly with people who are experiencing homelessness since 2016 as a shelter coordinator, case manager, outreach worker, and system advocate. The opinions and ideas below are my own.

Our words matter and language is powerful. Our words guide and inform others as to our intent and approach, and in turn, they guide how systems are developed and operated. The words that we use can reveal our biases and preconceived notions – blind spots and shadows in our thinking.  These blind spots are innate to our personal experiences and thoughts, and it is something we all share in one form or another. However, problems can arise when we are unwilling or unable to identify and confront our own bias.  

When we talk about homelessness, we need to carefully consider our words, and what biases might be informing them. Recent community discussions in La Crosse about homelessness have placed considerable focus on the decisions by some people to not access shelter systems. We broadly attribute it to them not being willing to follow rules, wanting to hang out with their friends, wanting to freely use illicit substances, or just not being interested in shelter. Our judgements and labels for these decisions fail to consider both the barriers that shelters may pose to people experiencing homelessness and the full suite of physical and mental conditions under which they are trying to make these decisions. Our words are neither fair nor based empathetically in the experience of homelessness.

People experiencing homelessness are frequently burdened by trauma from a myriad of sources – personal, mental, physical, institutional, and from the experience of homelessness itself. Their mental state, physical condition, and history with trauma are putting pressures on their thoughts and decision making that we can neither fully perceive nor understand. The result being that their decisions on what is essential for their survival can seem to be irrational, defiant, or oppositional.

Certainly, shelter is offered as a choice to people sleeping outside, and it is typically posed as the rational choice. Shelter ensures survival – a secure place to sleep, food, water, warmth, and direct proximity to programs and services. However, in a broad sense, shelter systems are institutionalized. Accessing shelter frequently means locked doors, staff behind windows and desks, asking permission for routine tasks, intake forms, assessments, rule sheets, schedules, and limited privacy. For all its ostensible benefits, shelter systems generally represent a restriction on self-determination for the people who access it.

Sleeping outdoors offers little to nothing in the ways of traditional comfort and it can make routine tasks such as eating, sleeping, and using the bathroom into daily, or sometimes even hourly, struggles for survival. However, people have the ability to decide what is essential for their survival and how to achieve it – their routines, who they are around, where they go, what communities they associate with, and how they moderate their mental state. In an environment of intense deprivation, we should not underestimate the incredible value of freedom and choice to the human spirit.

At a fundamental level, homelessness strips away personhood and humanity, and erodes choice and purpose. This substantially heightens the value of self-determination and make infringements more difficult to bear. Under these conditions, it is difficult to view the decision between shelter and sleeping outside as anything besides a choice in the most bare and technical sense. These options, as currently presented, both require trade-offs of qualities that most would consider essential for the body and spirit. Nobody, least of all people who are in need, should have to choose between trade-offs of survival and fundamental quality of life.  

Too often, we expect people who are homeless to rise to meet the barriers posed, indirectly or otherwise, by shelter systems. Perhaps we need to place less of the responsibility for adjustment on the people most in need, and instead seek to make shelters as innovative, flexible, and resilient as possible. We need to work toward having shelters be the least restrictive environments that are reasonable and possible. The foundation of any such shelter system is informed and guided by language around homelessness that expresses empathy, solidarity, and compassion. When people feel listened to, when they feel dignified, when they are comfortable, when they are fed – those are the fertile fields for positive change.

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