Homelessness poses questions with no easy answers

May 11, 2016

Dear Zenith News:

I’m weeding out my computer files and came across “Down and out in Duluth and Superior” [February 24, 2015]. In reading it today, I wonder if anyone knows the answers to the questions I posed? I don’t get the Zenith often, but when I do, I read it thoroughly and I find it an interesting publication.

The homeless may be misfits in a society of law-abiding and tax-paying citizens, but they should not be outcasts. A civil society must have public health and safety rules/laws in order to remain a civil and safe society. The homeless are people who should be treated with the respect that is due all children of God.

Some people choose not to have a home for various reasons. Some people are unable, unwilling, or simply do not want a home. Some people don’t want and will not accept being told by strangers how to live. Some people want to be left alone to spend their days as they choose. Some people would rather live on the streets, in a tent, under a bridge, or in a community of their own making. Some people simply do not fit into what society demands. Society is not allowing them that choice. Society is attempting to make them fit into society’s criteria of law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.  

It would be interesting to know what “Sam” wants. It would be interesting to know what the people in the [Graffiti Graveyard] community living under the freeway wanted. Kelly Wallin [of the Duluth Street Outreach Team] seems to know they simply wanted to be left alone in the community they created. It would be interesting to know what was accomplished by forcing them to move. What was the purpose and the goal of moving them, and what were the resulting consequences for the City and for that community? What were the positive consequences, and what were the negative consequences, and for whom? Who was satisfied with the results, who was not, and why or why not?

Society must first learn what the homeless want, then make decisions based on their needs, providing the basics of food, shelter, and clothing when they need them, to those homeless individuals unable to care for themselves. If the homeless choose to live in out-of-the-way places, like under the freeway, where they are invisible and don’t bother the law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, how can society help them do that? Could society provide insulation materials, porta-potties to make their community safer?  

Community services are available to the homeless and should be supported by society as a whole. Society will always have the homeless, those who don’t fit in, some because they can’t and some because they don’t want to. It is not the role of society to force people to live their lives according to the rules of society and make them outcasts if they refuse. Society has the obligation and responsibility to accept each individual as who they are, keep them safe where they are, and to assist them to move on if they wish to move on and to help those who cannot help themselves.

The homeless are not only a problem for society, but a problem for themselves. Is it feasible to devise a plan, a solution that is acceptable to both society and the homeless? Maybe, maybe not, but it is the responsibility of society to keep searching.

Rilla Opelt

Joel Kopcial replies: Thanks for responding to the article. In any discussion concerning the plight of not having four walls and a roof, it’s important to acknowledge that our current economic paradigm dictates that we compete with our neighbors for the means necessary for biological survival. Capitalism is based on competition, a concept that inherently divides people into winners and losers.

If we’re going to make a game out of obtaining food and shelter (a game that most of us didn’t sign up for), then society needs to be open and honest about what happens to people who lose this game. Unfortunately, dying out in the streets is one of the possible consequences of losing in the free market arena. But on the flip side, if you win, you can control more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population.   

Who benefits from an economy in which food and shelter are not guaranteed? Who suffers? What exactly is profit, and how is it obtained? One day, the answers to these questions will become known by the majority of the world’s population. I suspect this will cause quite an uproar. Until then, anyone who is fortunate enough to be housed should be cognizant of the possibility that their role within the neoliberal equation could at any time be deemed unprofitable, thus making their job obsolete. The whimsy of the free market will always offer the possibility of being out in the streets, begging for bio-survival tickets.

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