The Disaster of Homelessness
While listening to a National Public Radio (NPR) report about the Minnesota bridge collapse, one of the reporter’s comments caught my attention. She was describing how a homeless man had come by when she was interviewing people and yelled, “This is my life everyday!”
To many, it seems odd that homelessness could be similar to living through a disaster. There are differences that make many of us question that comparison, though. First, disasters are short-lived experiences, yet homelessness is a long-term problem. The longer someone is homeless, the more difficult it is for him or her to move out of it.
Second, there is direct, usually governmental, aid to survivors of disasters, whether natural or otherwise. Much of that aid often goes directly to the people who suffered the loss. However, aid for homelessness goes to organizations, not to the people who suffer the effects.
Third, disaster victims are often seen as blameless. We recognize that the precipitating event came from an outside source. Homeless people, on the other hand, are often blamed for their plight. Indeed, homelessness is one of our country’s most typical blame-the-victim scenarios.
Last, in disasters, many people jump up to help those who have suffered. Witness the blanket and blood drives, the food and other donation programs that spring up after disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes. However, most people don’t help the homeless person at the freeway off-ramp or on the sidewalk. Aid for homeless causes has been difficult to sustain—often because homeless people appear to be to blame for their circumstances and thus seem less deserving of such help.
Perhaps it would be easier to raise aid for the homeless if people stopped to consider how homeless people resemble victims of a disaster. First, people in both situations certainly experience a breach of norms. When typical rules of society are no longer applicable, people don’t know how to behave. This situation of normlessness brings to mind Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Anomic situations are difficult for the people who exist within them. Because the longer the breach in norms exists, the more upsetting it can be for the people in that situation, most people act to repair those breaches and get to some sense of normalcy as quickly as possible.
If you’ve ever been through a disaster or been homeless, consider how you might have tried to bring a sense of everyday reality back—and consider how comforting it was if you were successful. In the days after the 1994 Northridge earthquake here in southern California, we had no electricity or water—thus cooking or bathing was nearly impossible. Our first few days after the earthquake were spent sweeping up debris and attempting to make the house look as “normal” as possible. We all felt as if we were acting but it was comforting to try to pretend that life was indeed “normal”.
Second, whether you are homeless or the victim of a disaster, the main tasks with which people occupy themselves are similar. Both homeless people and those who survive disasters spend their time on survival issues: where will their food, shelter, and clothing come from? Bathing is difficult and safety is an issue both from the environment and other people. For example, after the earthquake my family pulled out the camping gear and tried to create a special kind of camping trip by cooking on the Coleman stove. (The kids weren’t convinced.)
Bathing was a special challenge since our water was the last utility to return. By the fifth day, I had to go to a friend’s house in a functioning neighborhood to take a shower—we were lucky that we had friends who welcomed us. Some years ago my spouse completed emergency training with the fire department and the main message was “take care of yourselves” since emergency services probably won’t get to you in a timely manner after a major disaster. Thus their advice was to barricade neighborhoods and control the entries and exits—to suppress any looting or robbery activities. If we had had the means, we probably would have gone to a hotel out of the area so that we could have felt as normal as possible as soon as possible.
Third, both for the homeless and for those who have survived a disaster, help is often not helpful at all. Shelters may be available, but they are not perceived as safe or suitable locations to spend one’s time. Rebuilding or finding suitable shelter takes time and depends on the resources available. Disaster relief may provide low-interest loans and financial grants to survivors but are often available only to homeowners, Even though both homelessness and disasters have a deep psychological impact on those who experience them, assistance for psychological help is usually not an option unless one has the resources and awareness to seek it out.
Finally, while homelessness isn’t considered a “disaster” by most people in our society disasters can create homeless people—they do destroy homes after all. The attitudes toward these categories of homelessness are very different. Those of us who study homelessness know that it is a societal disaster and that social factors have a large impact on why people become homeless, but the public does not always see it that way.
While Durkheim’s concept of anomie helps us to understand what’s happening in the social setting during such situations, Marx’s class distinctions and analysis of the ways that power is wielded in society can be useful in explaining why we see these two situations so differently when they are actually quite similar in their experience and impact.
How can we begin to explain these differences in attitudes and assistance? For one thing, homeless people are at the bottom of the class system, while those who are aided by the government and others during disasters are more likely to be at least middle class. In the hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters of the last twenty years, homeowners were often given low-interest loans from government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to rebuild their properties and businesses. In some cases, these supplemented insurance payouts and in many areas, the rebuilt areas were actually worth more after the disaster than before. A notable exception to this trend is the Katrina aftermath in New Orleans.
Marx’s theory can also help us better understand what happened in New Orleans before, during, and after Katrina. The populations most affected were the underclass and working poor who are still suffering the effects of that particular disaster two years later. Even if FEMA had in better working order and there hadn’t been as much bureaucratic mismanagement, these poor people likely would have suffered simply because they are poor. Marx would have a lot to say about why the levees were not repaired when the government had the prior knowledge that they were in jeopardy. Why were those projects not identified as a priority? The class distinctions furthered class divisions and exploitation during a natural disaster, enough to create a massive social disaster for one of our most unique cities.
I think the homeless man in Michigan was right on target, living as a homeless person is like living a disaster everyday—but without the assistance and support given to most disaster survivors.
Photos of Northridge earthquake damage courtesy of Richard Raskoff