Urban Lawyer

The Homelessness Muddle Revisited

by Will Sarvis

Will Sarvis is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon. The author very kindly thanks Professor Julie Cheslik and law student Julie A. Sims for their most stellar editorial attentions regarding this essay.


I. Introduction

I MUST CONFESS TO MY MANY PERSONAL INTERESTS REGARDING THE TOPIC OF HOMELESSNESS. Literally decades after my cross-country hitchhiking adventures (about 9,000 miles’ worth), I discovered that I myself had supposedly once been homeless. At the time, I never thought of it that way, regardless of sleeping under interstate highway overpasses or along roadsides safely out of view from passing traffic. Nor did I think of myself as “homeless” after my abusive father expelled me from the family home at age fifteen (believe me, I was all to happy to leave), or during all those weeks that I slept on the tavern floor where I worked, or when I squatted in a vacant apartment a friend and I illegally occupied during one summer. Nor did I consider myself homeless during the odd night here and there I spent sleeping under shrubbery in the town park, or in a car, or wherever. But according to some definitions, for an eight-year period on and off, I was supposedly homeless. Still, I was never what I regard as a true street person, pushing a stolen shopping cart filled with my worldly possessions. Except for one occasion of panhandling for rock concert ticket money outside of an arena, I never begged for money on the street. While hitchhiking, I felt I had my home on my back, and more importantly, I was on the move. As Depression-era rail rider John Fawcett commented, young homeless men such as we were, generally wanted to be in motion rather than stew in stationary misery.1 From a rambler’s point of view, to some extent, life has defeated stationary street people, inadvertently or not. That would have been too depressing for me to tolerate for long.

Sometime during the early 1980s I saw a homeless man in Washington, D.C., who inspired the first short story I ever wrote as an adult. I called it “Pigeons” for no reason that I can remember, other than many of the birds being there on the Washington Mall looking for food. The homeless man was hovering near one of those grates that expelled warm air during the wintertime. Vaguely, I remember his shopping cart filled with personal property, his ragged coat, his dejected demeanor. I expressed dismay at this sight, but the woman I was with (a hardened northern Virginian) expressed indifference and resignation. I never made peace with that scene, and not much has changed in that regard, all these years later. I have noticed, however, that America at large has also made little headway regarding homelessness.

In 1990, Robert C. Ellickson wrote an article called “The Homelessness Muddle,” in which he described the complex homeless demographic, contradictions in perception of homelessness and policy, and how certain policies were unsuited to specific realities of homelessness.2 The muddle definitely continues, and if anything, it has grown more complex. To begin, the homeless demographic has always been fluid and multifaceted. Homeless people can fall into oftenoverlapping categories of substance abusers, “throwaway children” from broken homes, veterans, lazy people, women escaping domestic abuse, “voluntary homeless” such as I was when cross-country hitchhiking (no one forced me to do it), and people suffering from mental illness. The recent recession saw a surge in homeless people who had suffered from financial devastation, both self-inflicted and not. There is also a differentiation of the homeless from what I’ll call “street people.” Some of the street people are not homeless. Among street people are panhandlers, but again, only some of them are homeless.

As you might imagine, such a complex demographic in itself tends to defy simple policy solutions. City governments, nonprofit organizations, and various advocates for the homeless have experimented with numerous policy ideas that sometimes partially function at various nuanced levels, depending upon circumstances. Partly arising from policy choices and partly inspiring policy, now we have a history of legal decisions that clarify some points while contradicting others. Considering all of the above, we are still very much amid a homelessness “muddle.” Ellickson chose the right word.

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