There is always the danger of dehumanization on behalf of those urging the immediate eviction of the homeless in Victoria Park. This approach, equally selfish and irresponsible, considers the best response to social “problems” is to shuffle them into a soundproof cupboard.
However, I believe an equal, if more subtle, dehumanity may still be hard at work amidst well-intentioned but misguided acts of compassion. Socialists have labeled such efforts “pathological altruism” – which can be defined as “an attempt to promote the welfare of others, which instead results in unanticipated harm.”
What harm you say?
The Normalization of Dysfunction:
It is bizarre to me that the tent situation is often narrated in terms which suggest a viable lifestyle choice. Indeed, the colorful banners, solidarity rallies, an overflowing donation tent, and circles of lawn chairs with drinks perched in their holders suggest not so much destitution as a perpetual lawn party.
Park residents, in defense of their tents, have accused the city of not upholding what they deem to be “acceptable shelter standards.” But, even acknowledging the unacceptability of unsanity/unsafe shelter conditions, can we at least all agree that homeless shelters are not supposed to be places you should want to put down roots in. Their inhospitality, intentional or not, should serve as a reminder of their purpose, namely, as a last recourse.
The Demoralization of a Community:
Judging by the amount of incidents taking place in the park, I get the impression that the inexistence of rules and order have not produced the kind of harmonious anarchy hinted at by several interviews. Add to this a growing kaleidoscope of garbage strewn across the lawn, neighbors afraid to sit on their porch for fear of being verbally abused or having to witness public defecation, and an increasing population of stray needles and you have the perfect conditions for the resent, fear, and anger of a neighborhood.
In our efforts to preserve the dignity of a specific population, it seems we have settled for bulldozing the dignity of those in proximity.
It’s easy to see a park full of tents and chalk up such a spectacle to unaffordable housing only. But the answer to homelessness isn’t nearly so compact. Christopher Rufo, executive director for the Documentary Foundation and a research fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Wealth & Poverty, comments:
“The reality, obvious to anyone who spends any time in tent cities or emergency shelters, is that 80 percent of the homeless suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and 30 percent suffer from serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.”
Having worked at various shelters for several years, and having witnessed countless instances of viable housing and employment opportunities squandered due to addiction, I concur wholeheartedly with Rufo’s diagnosis. This is the major flaw in Mayor Therrien’s “rapid response plan”, which seems to be predicated on the assumption that the main contributor to homelessness is a lack of opportunity.
While ideologues denounce various villains who “cause” homelessness—capitalists, landlords, racists, computer programmers—the reality is that homelessness is a product of disaffiliation. For the past 70 years, sociologists, political scientists, and theologians have documented the slow atomization of society. As family and community bonds weaken, our most vulnerable citizens fall victim to the addiction, mental illness, isolation, poverty, and despair that almost always precipitate the final slide into homelessness.
What we are witnessing in the microcosm of a tent city are the inevitable results of years of nonchalance towards traditional, ultimately biblical, paradigms for human flourishing. Individualism, even in its most benign forms (e.g. bumper stickers touting phrases such as “I’d Rather Date my Dog” or, “Single and Happy”) has been absolutely devastating to both individuals and communities.
So what to do?
Apart from humbling ourselves to acknowledge the reapings of our sowings, one practical option no one wants to consider is instituting the mandatory treatment (involuntary hospitalization) of homeless individuals suffering from mental health issues or substance addictions in conjunction with a realistic rehabilitation into the community – and into a home – upon completion of said treatment. Libertarians will cry foul, but such incentives have worked wonders in states such as New York and Seattle.
In conclusion, let me pose a question to those who consider the autonomy of the individual an unquestioned and sacred right: apart from the placards and the rallies and the triumphant rhetoric – what does compassion actually look like on the ground? Does it look like helping someone who won’t (or can’t) help themselves? Or does it look like fighting for a space for individuals to inject themselves into oblivion. Surely at such a point the preservation of autonomy starts to look a whole lot like neglect.
Such a strategy would require a focused and determined leadership – equally invested in the plight of the vulnerable, and resilient to short-time strategies that placate, but aren’t sustainable.