Choice, homelessness, and privilege

During a recent intensive Nonviolent Communication training, i attended a session on choices. Our usual response is to submit or rebel because we think we have to do certain things, we don’t have a choice. The have-to that popped into my mind was “I have to earn money,” something i’ve struggled with ever since i’ve embarked on my transition. I shared this have-to in the group and pointed out that our choices are often limited by the system we live in. We experience a system-personal responsibility trade-off. Our current capitalist system is built on exchanges using money. A couple of people spoke up with examples of their experience with “homelessness.” One woman shared an exercise she participated in for a day where she chose to utter only “Thank you” or “Feed me.” To her delight, she found out that she was being fed. As she put it, the universe was providing for her. Someone else recounted that he had been homeless for the last four years, traveling the world on a spiritual journey. I appreciated their sharing because i was reminded that i have many more choices than i thought. For example, a friend of mine exchanges his labor for room and board. Maybe money isn’t quite as ingrained as i had thought. Despite my gratitude for this expansion of my choices, i also felt sorrow when i was thinking about the homeless folks in San Francisco who seem to go hungry and don’t seem to have much choice about where they sleep. I felt uneasy with what i heard as blaming them for their predicament (they were just not looking hard enough for options). I had a sense that we were missing something in this discussion.

It wasn’t until another discussion in another class that i understood what we missed: Privilege. All three of us, in fact most of the participants in the NVC training, were white. We could afford the almost $3,000 to attend this training. Even the fellow traveler who had been homeless for four years chose to be homeless. He also had refuges along the way, places he could stay, showers he could use. As Jeremy Waldron points out, what makes homelessness such an undignified experience is that homeless do not have access to the very basics, such as a toilet or a shower. Giving up our home to learn to live with less might bring us closer to that experience but we still have the option to escape. We can call a friend or relative. We can rent a hotel room for a night. We might be able to find an odd job or earn money in other ways. All of that comes with class privilege, something that is all too often invisible to us. I only realized the impact of that privilege when i read “I do not fear being hungry or homeless.”

While i am still grateful for learning how i can expand the choices that are available to me, i now realize that the amount of choices are related to the amount of privilege i have. The more privileged my position, the more choices i have, especially when i am willing to let go of the idea that i have to do certain things. Yet, the system still lurks in the background and it plays into this more the less privilege a person has whether that is because of their race, ethnicity, gender, class, education, or any of the other myriad of things. It is not simply a matter of the universe providing. If we, as a society, truly want everybody’s needs to matter, our choices need to move us toward seeing everybody, including the homeless woman around the corner who lives on the street not by choice but because right now society doesn’t care. Or as Waldron puts it:

One question we face as a society – a broad question of justice and social policy – is whether we are willing to tolerate an economic system in which large numbers of people are homeless. Since the answer is evidently, “Yes,” the question that remains is whether we are willing to allow those who are in this predicament to act as free agents, looking after their own needs, in public places – the only space available to them. It is a deeply frightening fact about the modern United States that those who have homes and jobs are willing to answer “Yes” to the first question and “No” to the second.

Added June 26:Becky Blanton also became homeless by choice. She is recounting her experience pointing out something she had missed when she made that decision:

So I packed my cat, my rottweiler, and my camping gear into a 1975 Chevy van, and drove off into the sunset, having fully failed to realize three critical things. One: that society equates living in a permanent structure, even a shack, with having value as a person. Two: I failed to realize how quickly the negative perceptions of other people can impact our reality, if we let it. Three: I failed to realize that homelessness is an attitude, not a lifestyle.
But if you ever meet [a working homeless], engage them, encourage them, and offer them hope. The human spirit can overcome anything if it has hope. [...] I am here to tell you that, based on my experience, people are not where they live, where they sleep, or what their life situation is at any given time.

Once we no longer live “in a permanent structure,” our privilege disappears. Although, maybe the privilege that Blanton experienced was that she was able to get out of her misery because she had hope – from her past experience, from being seen. What if she didn’t have that past? If she had always been struggling, where had the hope come from? Maybe that is where the privilege lies: We have lived a different live and we have the hope that we can return to that life. And we can get the support we need to shift back to a homed life. Not all street people have that privilege.

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