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Varieties of Homelessness

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After seven months of getting back into the flow of writing about poverty, my New Year’s resolution is to continue doing ground-level or historical columns, but to try as well to map out the overall debate and see what each side has to contribute.

So far I’ve seen four major reasons for homelessness: Mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, financial limitations. Many enter homelessness through a combination of personal changes (such as a catastrophic breakdown of relationships) and external changes. Among them: closing of state mental institutions, factory shutdowns that lead people to boredom and despair, more drugs/more potent drugs that change your brain (particularly fentanyl), elevated housing prices in some large cities.

Experts argue about what percentage of the homelessness problem arises from personal causes and what percentage from externals. The traditional homeless shelter tended to prioritize the personal, while the new “Housing First” model emphasizes the external. Ideology has a role: Should people have to “earn” housing by sobering up, or do people have a right to housing regardless of conduct? If we ask for the likelihood of change among deeply-troubled people, we get into questions of determinism and free will.

My overall sense is that we don’t make much progress when people dogmatically assert that the reasons are all personal or all external. One odd aspect of American society now is the tendency to emphasize choice in areas that used to be determinist, and determinism in areas where people were assumed to have volition. Sex/gender is one obvious flashpoint, but let me dive into something slightly less incendiary: fat.   

The New York Times on Nov. 21 headlined a column, “The One Thing Obesity Scientists Agree On: Size Is Not a Choice.” Journalist Julia Belluz wrote that a three-day meeting of “the world’s top researchers studying obesity” ended with “no consensus whatsoever about what the cause of it is,” but a common “understanding of what obesity is not: a personal failing.”

Belluz emphasized what she sees as a contrast between researcher belief and “a prevailing societal view of obesity, which assumes people have full control over their body size,” and the problem is “laziness, gluttony and sloth.” We should concentrate on changing the food environment by outlawing junk food marketing to kids, banning school vending machines, and making neighborhoods more walkable.

I could go for some of that, but I wonder about Belluz’s insistence that progress will not come “until we see obesity as something that’s been imposed on societies, not as something individuals choose. [We must] stop blaming ourselves and one another and start focusing attention on environments and systems.”

My question: Why is weight gain either/or? I agree that fat-shaming and a lot of the supposed fixes in diet books and on store shelves don’t help, but Belluz’s column appeared three days before Thanksgiving, maybe the year’s biggest eating day: If some New York Times readers accepted her denial of human agency and believed they had no power to pass up a second slice of pie, she did them a disservice.

Our personal experience always influences us. I was a fat kid. For 60 years, since I was 12 and entered the seventh grade at a school across town, I’ve walked five miles a day on most days, and I almost always skip dessert. Those two habits have allowed me to stay at the same weight I had in high school, but if I had a different metabolism those two would not be sufficient. So, like so many things in my life, I rely on God’s grace — but I also try to win the race.

Even if we accept a certain amount of determinism, must we accept the predictive variety? Alcoholics Anonymous chapters have helped tens of thousands, so it’s clear that some alcoholics are able to stop drinking — even though the pressure to drink may always be there. AA people say, “I’m an alcoholic,” but they don’t say, “I will always get drunk.” That may be true for some people, but we don’t know in advance who can hold such a tendency in check, with the aid of a “higher power,” and who will succumb. Pure “housing first” assumes externals are dominant. Pure “clean and sober first” assumes internals are dominant. Might we develop a perspective that takes into account both?