On "Shoulding" the Homeless

92180901.jpgA piece I recently wrote about a homeless family sparked a flood of angry comments coming to me via multiple routes, which argued what the people "should" have done to prevent their current hardship. Since my natural inclination is to appreciate different perspectives and empathize with individual struggles, I can understand clearly how it provides comfort to pass judgment on the homeless. If you believe there are things someone should have or could have done differently, then that means it could never happen to you.

In my conversations with homeless individuals and families over the past months, I've repeatedly heard reference to the "snowball effect." I've found few who could pinpoint the cause of their homelessness to one single thing. More often it's described as a downward slide that builds momentum, quickly becoming harder and harder to stop.

That's why in the piece about Wilkins and Emma I compared it to falling off a cliff: "Wealth buys passage on toll roads a safe distance from the edge, but poverty's foot path runs along the craggy and unstable lip of a gaping precipice. Emma and her family hit a few ledges on the way down, blown by winds of misfortune every time they began to regain stable footing."

In the story of any homeless person, maybe one of the underlying causes can be an irresponsible choice, the development of an addiction, the inheritance of mental illness, an accident, an illness, or one of the varied forms of bad luck. But in most cases, the most common contributing factor is simply poverty.

I don't feel the need to address at any serious length some of the judgements about Emma and Wilkins: that they shouldn't have had a child (should she have had an abortion?), that she always should have been working (she was also working as a roofer when they became pregnant, and childcare costs nearly as much as a minimum-wage job would pay), that they shouldn't have driven to Montana (you don't know the family reasons for the trip), that public transportation is always a viable option (it's not), that they should have lived closer to work (not possible when job sites change constantly), that he should have gotten a higher-paying job with better benefits (because they grow on trees?). For some people it seems easier to pass judgment than to feel compassion. I have an appointment later today to interview a newly homeless mother of four in Minneapolis. I only know the barest outline of her story at this point, though no matter what her situation, under the circumstances I expect to hear from people that she shouldn't have had so many children. 

I can understand someone concluding that Emma and Wilkins should have had car insurance -- with that, they would readily agree, though that doesn't mean they could have afforded car insurance any more than the small fortune in fines they received as a result of not having it. Emma acknowledged in a statement I quoted that they had made mistakes in their past. As I've heard from so many homeless, once that snowball starts rolling, it's difficult to prevent the boulder it quickly becomes.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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