In this month’s newsletter, we share with you some of the preliminary results of a data match that CCEH conducted in partnership with CT’s Office of Policy and Management and the CT Department of Correction, in which we found that roughly one-fifth of our state’s sheltered homeless population are people who were discharged from a prison or jail within the last three years. (See article below for more information.)
These findings, along with our work to meet the needs of youth experiencing homelessness and to assist households who fled to Connecticut from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, have set me off in some deep reflection about the work of ending homelessness. Specifically, it has led me to wonder whether ‘homelessness’ is, in fact, the best word to describe this problem that we are working every day to solve.
Let me explain.
In her book, Policy Paradox, scholar Deborah Stone writes, “problem definition is never simply a matter of defining goals and measuring our distance from them. It is rather the strategic representation of situations…Problem definition is strategic because groups, individuals, and government agencies deliberately and consciously fashion portrayals so as to promote their favored course of action.”
In the early 1980s, when the public consciousness and concern arose about the increasingly visible number of people sleeping on the streets, on park benches, and in transit stations, a choice was made to refer to and define this problem as ‘homelessness.’ In some ways, this was an obvious choice. While it was well-recognized that this was a diverse group with a multiplicity of needs and challenges—poverty, mental illness, addiction, etc.—it was clear that the one glaring challenge common among these individuals faced was that they all lacked a stable home. At the same time, the word ‘homelessness’ is odd in that it is a passive term, lacking any connotation of agency or cause. The word suggests a problem that is idiopathic—that is, a condition whose cause is unknown. Perhaps it is one reason why so many members of the public continue to hold the misconceptions that people choose to be homeless or that it results simply from a random series of misfortunes.
When I think about all of the households who lost their homes in Puerto Rico as a result of a natural disaster, and the 1,200 people every year who use shelters after release from a prison or jail, and the thousands of young people who are kicked out of their homes due to their sexual or gender identity or are removed from their parents and placed into foster care and then wind up on the streets, I think that the word ‘homelessness’ seems somehow inadequate. None of these groups lost their homes by some random set of incidents. None of these groups chose to lose their homes. They were in fact displaced. It makes me wonder what would have happened if we had chosen the word ‘displacement’ rather than ‘homelessness.’ Would we have taken so long in trying to solve it?
For far too long, those of us working to end homelessness had come to believe that we would never be able to identify the causes of homelessness. We chalked it up to big, abstract causes like income inequality or the housing market, or to long past policies like the de-institutionalization of the mental health system. In doing so, we just about gave up on the idea that homelessness could ever be prevented and we focused instead just on rescuing people only after they had fallen into crisis.
I think that that time has come to an end. We now have the tools to recognize that homelessness doesn’t happen at random. We know that it most certainly isn’t a choice. It is becoming increasingly clear that people don’t just lose their homes, they are displaced from their homes. They are displaced because of public policies and systems that rely too much on confinement in institutions like jails and prisons and drastic measures like family separation and not enough on services and supports. They are displaced because of the lack of protections from predatory practices, financial hardship, and labor abuses. They are displaced because of a lack of swift government response in the wake of natural disasters. ‘Homelessness’ may seem too mysterious of a problem to prevent, but we can certainly prevent people from being displaced.
To be clear, I am not by no means asking that we stop using a word that we have used for so long to describe a tragedy that we have lived with for far too long. I am simply pointing out that homelessness is indeed solvable, not only for the people who are already facing it today, but also for the people who will face it tomorrow. More and more, we are learning how to stop homelessness before it begins. I hope you will join and support us in doing so.