Mueller: Fixing homeless problem requires redefining “problem”

September 18, 2013 


— The “problem” of the homeless in Columbia will never be properly resolved as long as those searching for a solution have an “us and them” mentality. Only an “us and us” approach can give us the proper perspective, and that sort of approach is very difficult for us Americans. Historically, when there is a “problem,” we tend to look for a scapegoat or a trouble-maker, an “other” we can blame so as to absolve ourselves of any culpability.

At the same time, we have a long, sad history of applying condescending pity instead of compassion to the problems of the less fortunate. Couple this with the nagging reality that “less fortunate” in America has always meant anyone not white, male, employed and (usually) sober, and the complexity of the quandary increases dramatically.

A humane response can never be articulated when the phrase “the homeless problem” is shorthand for “those who have become a blight on the community, a threat to economic viability and an intrusion on one’s ‘right’ to be left alone.” Only when we can talk about the “homeless problem” in terms of lack of jobs, lack of social services and a lack of human decency toward one another can we resolve the tensions while maintaining everyone’s dignity. Sadly, the tenor of the discussion so far has been set by those who espouse the first position.

This dangerous view of how our society should be shaped traces its roots to a philosophy that claims kinship with the “inalienable rights” cherished by the Founding Fathers, yet this new liberalism sweeping our nation actually only champions the right to be left alone, while eschewing the responsibilities that come with citizenship in this great country. This is a radical departure from ideals concerning human conduct and relationships that we have cherished for centuries, regardless of whether we applied them or not.

As well-reasoned as so many of these left-alone proposals sound, ultimately they are the baring of the fangs of a cornered wild animal, who will lash out violently, instinctively, concerned only with its survival. Back in the late 1970s, historian Christopher Lasch said, “Self-preservation has replaced self-improvement as the goal of earthly existence.” That’s not a good thing.

Timothy Mueller


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