Our REAL Homeless Problem
Homelessness is not necessary. It is the result of our collective inaction, there to be solved, but left to fester. Three nations’ starkly different approaches show the impact of our choices.
“The only common denominator to homelessness is that they lack a home. This must be the starting point.”
That stunningly simple yet powerful statement was made in a four-nation symposium on Zoom that I attended, by architect Juha Kaakinen on the subject of homelessness. Kaakinen is the CEO of non-profit housing provider Y-Foundation, in Finland, and is the man behind their near-eradication of homelessness. While every country in Europe has seen increases in homelessness since 2008, Finland alone has seen a precipitous drop.
The reason? Kaakinen says, “We started on that path [toward ending homelessness] when we changed our thinking to see housing as a human right, the foundation of living a good life.” That point of view stands in stark contrast to free-market capitalism, where cream rises, grinds fall, and everyone’s free to join the melee, to see what happens to them.
Kaakinen is full of clear-eyed statements. Here’s a third: “To keep society functioning, you have to keep everyone in [it].”
So, taken together, these statements — and Finland’s official position — posit that A: homelessness simply means lacking a home; B: access to a home is a human right; C: and unless everyone is in one, and thriving, society stops functioning. Meaning, it fails.
I’m not sure about you, but the only downside I can see to the picture he paints is that if we were all to act like Finland, we would no longer get to play those zero-sum, dog-eat-dog, win-lose, binary, ego-driven games that we so love and cherish.
We’d have to play nice.
Doing the hard work to reintegrate those who don’t excel in capitalist games, or have other personal challenges to surmount, is a real bummer. It gets in the way of #winning.
Y-Foundation, with 16,500 apartments under management, is now the Scandinavian nation’s fourth largest landlord. Their operation goes beyond supplying bricks and mortar. The buildings are staffed by professionals trained in re-integrating marginalized — or down-on-their-luck — individuals into society.
According to Kaakinen, “There are different kinds of support, from help with daily activities through to detoxification in the home and support for people with recurring psychoses. It’s individually tailored but based on free will; you don’t have to take support to get the housing. The housing and support services are separate.”
And it works. Amazingly, 82% of tenants remain resident, after two years. The program has been so successful that Kaakinen says chronic homelessness is no longer an issue in Finland.
A Nordic Mindset
I’ve written about the Nordic Model before, in a piece titled Northern Lights, published last month. All Scandinavian countries, Finland included, practice a hybrid capitalist-socialist model of collectivism, in which market forces allow for competitive aspects of income generation in the context of an economics-fixated planet, while social welfare ensures that the entire population of a country receives the lion’s share of governmental focus and funding, to enable it to thrive.
The Nordic model of socio-economic governance comes closest to proving that it is indeed possible to “have your cake and eat it, too,” by ensuring that there’s enough cake for everyone.
All five Scandinavian countries, in fact, rank among the world’s greatest democracies and, separately, provide the highest quality of life, thereby topping list after list, year after year, as the best places to live. In addition to these accomplishments, they enjoy some of the highest levels of longevity, and rank amongst the highest GDP-producing nations on the planet.
And guess what? Finland, specifically, topped the World Happiness Report’s list of happiest people on the planet, bumping the other Scandinavian countries out of their pole position for which they invariably vie.
All to say, taking care of other people does not constitute a measurable draw on society, nor does it diminish the quality of life for those who don’t need the help.
If anything, these whopping statistics prove the opposite to be true: the better we care for one another through socialist programs, the better the nation fares economically, which includes all of the people in it.
It’s is true by economic standards. It’s true by quality-of-life measurements. It’s true in the reflection of citizens’ happiness. And it’s true by the measure of real democracy — where people have agency in their own lives.
So of course, when it comes to homelessness, we can turn to the same quintet of forward-thinking nations — and to Kaakinen’s Finland, in particular — to learn strategies that may actually make a difference, rather than elicit hand-wringing and consternation, and nothing else.
You know: like we do at home.
What Socialism Really Means
Before I get to what’s galling me about Canada and the United States’ current mistreatment of the homeless — a ballooning population, under economic strains exacerbated by COVID-19 — I feel obligated to address what I see as rampant misconceptions about what socialism really is. That’s because governments’ anti-socialist mindsets are part of the problem as to why homelessness is festering, and why attempts to alleviate it through grassroots goodwill and volunteerism are met with aggressive countermeasures by the very government that smiles at cameras and preaches inclusivity with their words, while simultaneously unleashing hordes of police and lawmakers charged with repossessing, dislocating and destroying anything that lies outside of the system’s legal and economic reaches, with their acts.
Socialism’s roots are in ancient Greek philosophy, with Plato and Aristotle — the guys who also invented democracy. It later found a strong voice in Jesus of Nazareth, a philosopher (or God, depending on your view) whose teachings were socialist. They resurged again under German philosophers (you see a trend, here?) Marx and Engels, who advocated for “positive humanism” that Lenin somehow managed to pervert into a bad deal for everyone. Before that happened, the German duo primarily championed the agency of human beings, individually and collectively.
The word socialism couldn’t be more self-explanatory: social + ism; as in, a practice, system and philosophy (the ‘ism’ part) focused primarily on society. Specifically, on the society’s health, by every measure of wellbeing. It’s founded on notions of community — of people who care about one another and act in accordance with that overarching principle as a priority — over the needs of the individual. These things are based, more than anything, on an understanding that any society is only as strong as its weakest link; and that together, we are stronger.
Socialism is the literal opposite of anti-socialism. I don’t know about you, but anti-socialism sounds pretty dangerous to me, and I wouldn’t want to live in it.
No Door to Lock
Like others, I have been incredibly dismayed at scenes of makeshift “tent cities” proliferating of late; of long bread lines the likes of which haunted the Great Depression; and of the ever-more-crowded public spaces where people do whatever they can to survive COVID, joblessness, and a brutal winter — at least, up North, in Canada.
By and large, two of the wealthiest nations in the world are doing f*ck all about it. Worse, in both cases, they are actively hunting homeless people, in three ways. First, they are chasing them away from the makeshift communities they’ve made in public parks — measures taken, for sure, to help them cope with the psychological stresses of a life decimated. The homeless are social creatures, too. This, in itself, is a crime, in my view.
Second, they are telling these same people that the soft ground they’ve found in those parks — nature’s beds — is not for them. The word public, it seems, has its limits. And so, police, lawyers and elected officials are all putting in long hours… to turn the homeless population into a perennially nomadic one, left to wander from one place to another, until they are chased once again from their nesting spot, or else coerced into shelters in which these same folks would prefer not to sleep.
To begin with, shelters are dangerous places, full of theft, rape and abuse. In an article titled No Door to Lock, JAMA Network reports that roughly 33% of women, 27% of men and 38% of transgender people reported a history of sexual or physical abuse, each year. And that was before COVID. Shelters, in more than just my view, are an epic sign of failure on the part of our societies to invest of themselves in re-integrating homeless people into society, rather than simply hiding them in (dangerous) places of convenience.
Said bluntly, there’s a reason people sleep on the street, when there’s shelter, heat and a bed to be had, thanks to the state. It’s called self-preservation.
Equally troubling, these places are also breeding grounds for the very disease that sent the world into hiding, just over a year ago. According to the U.S. Department of Global Health and the Centers for Disease Control, who recently surveyed shelters in three cities, 17% of residents and staff in Seattle’s system tested positive for coronavirus; 36% of Boston’s residents did, along with 30% of their staff; and a whopping 66% of San Francisco’s shelter residents, and 16% of staff there, also contracted COVID-19. Shelters, unsurprisingly, are festering pits of pathogenic proliferation, left to be unleashed on our most vulnerable citizens.
Back in bleeding-heart-socialist-leaning Canada, from which I am writing these words as a native-born son and part-time resident, the problem is no better. While Canadians won’t collect data on things that risk offending someone by labeling them, like race or homelessness (these things are “protected” in Canada—another issue), a few sober-minded individuals like Tim Richter, who runs the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, are pleading with his government to do something about the problem, whether or not they’re willing to measure it. According to CTV News:
“Even with physical distancing measures and increased testing in place, Tim Richter, president and CEO of CAEH, insists neither of these addresses the larger issue at hand — the fact that a portion of Canada’s population lacks a home.
“Public health tells us that we should be at home, isolating…[and] wash our hands often with access to hygiene, which are all difficult to do when you’re experiencing homelessness,” he told CTVNews.ca on Thursday via telephone. “Communities around the country have been scrambling to set up isolation shelters [and] create [physical] distancing.
“Ultimately, the best protection from COVID-19 is a home.”
You couldn’t script a darker, yet more understated, diatribe. It takes a mild-mannered Calgarian to tell our government that the best protection against COVID and homelessness is… wait for it… a home in which to physically distance oneself.
An Architect, Disenfranchised
I am an architect, by trade and by passion, who has spent 30 years designing everything from bathrooms to international airports — many of each — and everything in between. I have been incredibly fortunate to work for global firms with global reach, for most of my career. When I still ran my own company, I even had the eye-opening experience of designing a 450,000 square foot home (not a typo) for the sovereign leader of a Mid-East nation, valued at Allah-knows-how-much. I have made lots of money for lots of people — clients and bosses, alike.
It is nearly impossible to reconcile authoring a twelve-hundred-foot-long palace in the desert—one with a fleet of electric vehicles to help its residents traverse it—while regularly walking past human beings, laden with snow, sitting on cardboard, and jockeying for access to subway grates, back home.
And yet, it wasn’t until about a year or two ago that I began to wonder what value — true value — I contributed to the world, beyond winning scores of self-congratulatory awards for my colleagues and designing eye-catching, critic-pleasing icons for my clients. After all, what has historically distinguished me from my peers is creativity. And while creativity can be aimed at solving sticky problems—like homelessness, among other truly important initiatives—what value is it if it’s simply aimed at conceiving more clever, sublime and marketable versions of what really amounts to weather-tight containers? If we strip away the esoteric nature of aesthetic prowess, isn’t any roof that doesn’t leak, any door that locks, and any mechanical system that maintains our thermal comfort good enough?
I’ve concluded that it is.
And while some architectural solutions for improving outcomes for the homeless and working poor, the environment, and the quality of our constructions are absolutely better than others, it is increasingly in these imperative sandboxes that I wish to aim my energies, as a creative professional.
Which is where I’ve become uncomfortable with the sandbox in which most—thought admittedly not all—of my profession still plays; and as a result, I am asking myself deeper questions about using my talents to do “greater good” in the world than I have, in the hundred-or-so buildings I’ve helped birth.
At some point in their lives—I believe—all architects (and our engineering and construction partners) should stand in front of our mirrors and ask ourselves, “What good am I doing with my skills and my platform, beyond earning others money through creative acts?” Isn’t our calling — the creation of shelter, and by extension, security — one of the greatest goods of all? Aren’t we and our engineering and construction colleagues the people best skilled at doing something about homelessness, directly—just like Juha Kaakinen? Isn’t this, in fact, what we’d call a no-brainer? A cake walk?
It is that easy, when it comes to expertise and capacity, and I know plenty of people and companies who would participate eagerly in envisioning and building shelters. But at the same time, it isn’t that easy, when it comes to execution. That’s because some governments and their laws often constitute the biggest impediments—roadblocks—to our collective ability to act quickly and energetically on altruistic instincts.
This is especially true in places like Canada and the United States, where I’ve collectively spent most of my life; where homelessness is perennially discussed; and where politicking unfailingly kills good initiative(s). My two governments typically, aggressively, counteract any attempt to bypass a system hellbent on doing nothing.
Why? Here’s my view: It’s all about money that frames the optics that drives political actions that are aimed at re-election that is fueled by funding that is driven by capitalistic self-preservation… on everyone’s part.
And yet: some amazing stories — exceptions to the bad news — have emerged out of kindness, volunteerism, resolve, creativity and more than a little “I don’t care what’s allowed; I’m going to do what’s right.”
One of these, a Toronto-based carpenter named Khaleel Seivwright, has been funding and building 2x6-foot shelters, insulated like a home, lockable, ventilated, wisely perched above the frozen ground, and complete with a fire extinguisher, out of his garage; then donating them to homeless people who have expressed an interest in having one.
Toronto Police, so-directed by the same government that has been disbanding its ‘tent cities’ religiously, have confiscated a number of them, while others have thus-far evaded capture.
Seivwright slept in shelters before, back in Vancouver. For him, this is personal.
After enough of his shelters were confiscated and destroyed, he decided—in a bit of marketing genius—to post video footage of his ‘customers’, so that they could explain in their own words what these shelters mean to them. One woman shares that for the first time, her chronic pain meds aren’t being stolen, because she finally has a lockable door. Another man says the shelter is the best thing that’s happened to Toronto, and that without them, people would be “dropping left, right and centre”. That same man pauses, looks down, and quietly says, “It saved my life, basically.” A third person cites the benefit of a real shelter against “the nasty people — the ones who rip your tent in the middle of the night.” He adds, “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
I could go on. The central point is: Seivwrights’ shelters are the difference between life and death, for these people. Moreover, they make great headway toward satisfying what Abraham Maslow famously articulated as the most foundational of human needs: those of safety, security, warmth and rest (food and drink being another challenge). All of these things are met with a tiny 2x6-foot box… at least, until our governments come around.
So why are these legislative bodies so committed to opposing these things?
They believe, I think, that these “eyesores” don’t reflect well on them. That is, they are highly visible signs of their failure to take care of their own citizens, beyond their words and politics. Moreover, there is no longer such thing in the capitalist West as “shelter without taxation.” Without paying for the privilege, we have determined, one cannot own a shelter of any kind. Just try to claim a plot of land and build something — anywhere within the footprint of a nation. You cannot do so; not without the government first electing to map it, zone it, regulate it, establish a tax burden, and legislate every dimension of your privilege to live there.
The shelters that Seivwright and others are building are illegal, bluntly, because they are not taxable. And so, because taking away things that don’t fit into the system is far easier than figuring out how to house those who cannot pay taxes — beyond parking these folks out of sight, in dangerous shelters that they don’t want to live in—we’ve kind of stopped doing anything, outside of intrepid NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and renegades like our carpenter friend.
South of the border, it’s no better. In a Mashable article titled Los Angeles Declares War on Tiny Houses Donated to the Homeless, Elvis Summers, the not-for-profit founder of Starting Human/The Tiny House Project, has spent months defying police and governments by building and distributing houses to the homeless people that officials have largely ignored, and more frequently harassed. He even has a GoFundMe account called Tiny House, Huge Purpose, to extend his reach. But as in Canada, as fast as he makes them, the police take them away.
Summers built and placed 37 of them in one area of town, all of which were tagged for removal by the city, then removed at the request of a city Councilman named Curren Price — an African-American Democrat, no less.
He’s not alone.
LA Bureau of Sanitation spokeswoman Elena Stern said, “I don’t refer to these as homes or houses because they’re really not. They’re temporary structures, and while the intent may be noble and good, the structures are not fit for people to stay in them.”
Not fit for people to stay in them?! Tents are better? Street grates are better? These were never intended to be permanent solutions. What they are, is action in the context of inaction by the very government that has sworn to take care of the public.
The people in these things couldn’t disagree more.
Summers, too, used to be homeless, by the way. See the pattern here? He said, “The mayor just threw out two veterans [from the shelters he made for them]. They paid their ticket. They shouldn’t be homeless.”
He goes on:
“These guys are a bunch of corrupt bullies. I can think of dozens of ways, and not over a ten-year period, dozens of ways in a month that every single homeless person could be off the streets. There’s a lot of ways this could be a win-win for everybody, but they don’t want to listen.”
Since then, Summers adapted. He said, of the destroyed shelters:
“These ones were kind of high profile. They haven’t found my other ones, and they’re not going to.”
In both Canada and the U.S., private citizens have voluntarily donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund Summers’ and Seivwright’s initiatives. They, in turn, supplied the initiative, the heart, the elbow grease and the outreach. It’s heartening to see. At the same time, homelessness is not something an individual can solve, however community-minded and selfless they may be. For scalable progress to be made, a government must lead the effort, or at the very least, enable it or get out of the way (!), to make it easier to solve, in partnership with private enterprises, NGO partners and inspired individuals who have the reach, the time, the expertise and most importantly, the will.
This is what’s been happening in Finland. But there, they began with a view toward homelessness that is far healthier—far more empowering—than the Western narrative and priorities we’ve settled on, which has led to a grossly inadequate investment in our own people.
The Brutal Numbers
According to the OECD, comprised of the world’s richest nations, Canada spends just 17.3% of its GDP on social programs—among the lowest in the industrialized world. The U.S. is better, at 18.7%, but not by much. Finland? It ranks third highest, behind France and Belgium.
According to a PressProgress Canada article:
“Dalhousie University professor Daniel Dutton told PressProgress that social spending includes social assistance payments, housing, and child welfare, which directly drive social determinants of health. Dutton noted social “stresses” limit people’s freedom to remove themselves from harms. “Lower social spending means we are fine letting people deal with those environments on their own, which means we accept their health will suffer.”
That sounds pretty much spot on.
It also reflects my chief misgiving about our politicized, economics-obsessive heavy handedness, when it comes to taking care of our own citizens.
A Finnish Beginning
Back to Kaakinen. The economic argument is usually the deal-killer in profit-obsessed countries. Housing is one of the economic engines of any nation. Real estate and related businesses comprise the biggest contributor to American GDP — nearly twice the next largest tranche, related to professional and business services. In Canada, too, it is the largest. This is one reason that Kaakinen and the Finnish government focus so much on this issue.
“You can see what happens when housing is the playground of finance and speculation, rather than seen as a social right, basic social infrastructure that’s needed to keep society functioning,” he says. At the time of writing, social housing makes up 13 percent of Finland’s total housing stock and rising, compared to just 4 percent in Australia. “There is no way you can end homelessness with such a low percentage of affordable social housing,” he says. “In a [wealthy] country like Finland or Australia, it’s not a money issue. It’s also important to understand that helping the homeless out of homelessness actually saves money — we have studies that show when one homeless person gets permanent housing, with support, it saves our society €15,000 per year.”
And so, even in economic terms, ending homelessness is good business. Kaakinen falls short of stating the obvious: that in addition to no longer being a drag on economics, a human returned to social participation is usually a contributor, in one manner or another.
So macro-economics isn’t the issue. It’s micro—or personal—economic gain that is the real impediment to progress, wrapped up in politics.
Finally, there is a moral imperative to solving homelessness that has zero to do with economics and everything to do with our own worth as members of the human community. Every person is entitled — in my view — to a life that guarantees dignity, safety and belonging; and for those of us who are lucky enough to be on the #winning side of things, it is our moral obligation to do what we can for those who are not. That includes such unorthodox things as making tiny, senselessly illegal homes for people who might die, might be raped or beaten, might lose toes to frostbite, or might lose hope without these things.
As Summers said, there are a lot of [obvious] ways homelessness can be solved.
All we lack is the resolve — the strength and the grit — to do the right thing.
Shame on us.