On "Shoulding" the Homeless

A 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.

The state of Washington should absolutely require drivers to have car insurance, but I don't believe the system of penalties in place for those unable to afford its purchase contribute to the bigger picture of a healthy society. When property taxes are down, is that what we're going to do to fill government coffers?

If someone doesn't have money for car insurance, is it to our benefit to fine them $450? Is it to our benefit to double it to $900 if they can't come up with $450 within 15 days? Is it to our benefit to eventually imprison them for 30 days, at a cost to taxpayers of $65 per day, if their license is suspended, they have to drive to work, and still can't come up with that $900?

This set up reminds me of a comment made by Robert Daneri, whose family of six experienced four months of homelessness until very recently. As Robert puts it:

"Policy affecting the homeless is made by the wealthy and implemented by the middle class, but neither understand the life of the poor."

Taxpayers can end up footing a larger bill in order to punish an individual because he/she couldn't afford the fine imposed in the first place. What productive end does that serve? And think of the outward ripple affect of that trend -- those who lose the only minimum wage job they have because they get caught in the loop, those whose families end up homeless as a result. How does that process boost our nation's productivity?

Rather than slamming someone with an unaffordable fine because they can't afford car insurance in the first place, a more practical system could be arranged fairly easily. I wouldn't suggest the government should get into the car insurance business, but what if rather than targeting uninsured drivers as a source of revenue, the fine imposed would be a reasonable monthly payment financing the purchase of that insurance? That $450 could cover a six-month premium under some circumstances, though the government would have to establish arrangements with one of the insurance companies that don't charge higher rates for those living in poorer neighborhoods.

So I ask my readers, do you think something like I've outlined above would be more judicious and of greater overall benefit to the productivity of our nation than a system that leads to what I referred to as a debtor's prison in the story of Wilkins and Emma? If not, please feel free to offer another suggestion for an arrangement that would not punish the poor.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)