Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Homelessness again

When I was in high school we read Bartleby the Scrivener. I was in an international school--mostly Americans, but all of us were children of working and motivated families. The poor I saw in Liberia were either working, looking, or disabled. I don't know what families did behind the scenes with members who didn't want to work. There were undoubtedly some of them--they show up in stories--because of the rule that if someone has a good job he is obligated to provide for as many of his extended family as would fit. (One firm provided very tiny houses for employees to forestall this.) Even little children have tasks.

With that background, I though Bartleby was written as a kind of abstract thought experiment.

I know better now.

The question of the story--What do we owe a man who does not give?--is too general: Why matters. Cannot (physical/mental breakdown) ≠ Will not ("let him not eat") ≠ moral issues with available tasks

I don't have general answers, of course. I haven't seen "studies" on the subject, but I'm more and more convinced that while congregating the homeless is efficient, it is bad for many of them. I probably don't see those it benefits, but the descriptions of the social environments aren't pretty and I suspect congregation with other homeless helps very few. Congregation certainly forces distance between them and the rest of us.

That, if true as I think it is, leads to a conundrum. If we want to help, we must welcome at most N people, and then be unwelcoming to number N+1. To act lovingly (and protect from predation) we have to act unlovingly.

Even saying "N" homeless is oversimple. Different issues need to be dealt with differently: two addicts might be too many, assuming your team can even work with one.

The matter is one of live interest in Madison, where the "Red Mayor"'s attempt to institute sanity in the use of the City-County building was overridden by the city council.

In randomly perusing books and posts on the web about the poor in England, I get the impression that there was supposedly a change in attitudes toward the poor after the Black Death; where before they had a role in the community with religious approval, afterwards they were often blamed for idleness. This is blamed on economic pressures and laws criminalizing conduct. But looking at some of the details, I doubt the direction of causation. Even before the Black Death people distinguished between the able-bodied and needy poor, and afterward they still took care to be generous to the disabled. What looks different is the mention of migratory workers and beggars. If they were then pretty much the same as they are now (modulo different substances to be addicted to) perhaps the laws were a reaction.

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