Let’s face it, homeless people suck. They are smelly, everyone hates them, and simply looking at them makes you feel bad about your easy/sheltered life until you just learn to pretend that they don’t exist and shut yourself off from that aspect of society. Now I’m not talking about the economically homeless who are down on their luck and can’t depend on other people anymore, but rather the other homeless people who are unable to be rehabilitated back into society.
The other week I was watching an episode of Hoarders on Netflix when a particular plot about the homeless caught my attention. Meet Steven, a homeless man resettled into government housing in Olympia, Washington. Steven is unemployed and is on Supplemental Security Income for disability. Most likely, it was that disability that caused Steven to go homeless in the first place. However, Steven never learned to have a home and the entire aspect seems alien to him. As a result, his entire economy-economy apartment is covered in a two-foot layer of garbage that makes living there simply unsanitary and dangerous to his health.
Besides this, Steven kind of sucks as a person and his only friend I feel almost as bad for as I do for Steven. If he isn’t a volunteer mentor who pretends to be Steven’s friend for this episode, it’s just a bit sad that the guy’s only friend is a post-homeless man who lives in a two feet deep layer of shit in his apartment. Other than being a commentary on disposable consumer culture that generates a large amount of non-decomposing plastics, (which is probably good in the case of Steven’s apartment) the show also shines a light on the lifestyle of the homeless which is generally one of collecting the refuse of society and not letting go of it unless it is no longer possible to carry. The rationale for this is that many items can be recycled, or find other uses for them, which is why the stereotypical image of the homeless man pushing a shopping cart exists. The lifestyle of a homeless person is not one of hoarding, but rather one of hunting and gathering of post-consumer plastics and organic refuse.
It must be understood that society has failed the homeless and that there is no going back on this sin. No amount of soup kitchens, prison-like shelters, or alms-giving will make the problem go away. The only thing that can be done at this point is preventative measures that would prevent the economically and otherwise homeless from becoming full-on vagrants and outcasts. Measures such as supplemental income, housing assistance, battered women’s shelters, and extended unemployment protection are among the things that could prevent people from becoming homeless for extended periods of time and losing the social mentality that made them have a home and a full-time job in the first place.
Of course, many homeless do indeed hunger for a home. From my own experience, I remember seeing a homeless man at a Barnes & Noble look through magazine full of advertisements for upper-class housing such as high-rise condominiums, villas, and otherwise large homes. However, if such a man did live in a house like that, he would feel no more at home than he does on the street. The fact of the matter is, homelessness is as much ‘houselessness’ as it is the lack of an idea of a home. Even if resettled into functional housing, people like Steven are forced to live out a monotonous life of poverty on the bottom rung of society, a life that has no aspirations because such a late start in society makes adjustment difficult, but also because social mobility in the United States is one of the lowest in the developed world. A homeless person that is resettled is basically doomed to spend their entire life in a tiny apartment and almost no chances of social advancement, a fate that is marginally better than homelessness, but not at all better, except for a warm bed, for a person completely alienated from the idea of a home and a social existence.
So, it may be asked, what can be done about the homeless? They are more than anything antithetical to our idea of civilization, finding a place to subvert it in its very hearth. They are unpleasant to the eye and generally lead to both urban decay and social stratification as they are seen as detractors of the image of a healthy economy and generally lead to anti-homeless measures such as uncomfortable benches, an intensified police presence, and crappy bus shelters.
The answer lies in India, a place of poverty and refuse-lined streets, a place where people live in squalor and starvation is an everyday reality. No, the answer is not allowing the homeless to craft their own civilization of discarded refuse on empty plots of land. Such a solution is not beneficial to anyone, as the homeless end up no longer being forced to consume the same products as the rest of society, lowering consumer demand, produce competition for goods through their own enterprises, reducing corporate profits, and generally reduce the economic potential of adjacent areas unless they are placed into areas far from sources of consumables and refuse from which to make their day’s bread.
No, the solution lies within Indian society itself. As it is known, India is a very spiritual place that is home to both Hinduism and Buddhism but also has significant Christian and Muslim minorities. Within Hinduism there is a set of caste-free people who have renounced all of their possessions and obligations and have come to live a life of renunciation from material belongings and spiritual fulfillment.
Although they look like hippies, the Sadhu are in fact forever bound to the ascetic lifestyle and are considered legally dead by the Indian state. Such a lifestyle is not very different from many of the homeless in America today, but is in fact significantly better as the Sadhu are both a part of society and apart from it because of their religious dedication. Many of them come from a background of poverty and drug addiction, but many others enter it from a background of wealth for the sake of achieving greater spiritual fulfillment.
Of course the path to becoming a Sadhu is fraught with difficulty and is not one of simple conversion. To become one, a person has to renounce all of his possessions and relationships and come into the service of a guru that he and other adepts live communally with. This, however, would not be unsuitable to many of the homeless today as many of them do have possessions that they could renounce, and are for the most part not able to be rehabilitated back into society.
The Sadhu and the cult of Shiva which they follow also provide a stabilizing effect on society, as they are not only no longer hated by society, but also present a viable alternative to those who may be unsatisfied with the present lifestyle. However, as the alternative to this society is much more difficult, the unsatisfied would find much more meaning in their day-to-day lives and would strive to improve the world around them rather than escape from it.
One drawback of this idea is that the climate of the United States is much colder than that of India. However, we already have a large amount of infrastructure for the accomodation of the homeless, who would really be the best candidates for staying in homeless shelters as they have no possessions and are not prone to violence. In fact, the movement would most likely lead to the construction of more such shelters as people begin to humanize the homeless rather than seeing them as antithetical to their world.
Of course the United States is a predominantly Christian country where such a movement would be difficult to hatch, but perhaps the Indian-American Hindu community would be able to found it here. Other than that, it is also possible as a subset of the Unitarian Universalist church, as it is a subset of Christianity and is flexible enough for both adepts and the society at large to be comfortable with, and would also lead to greater exploration and diversity of ideas in our society.