Homelesssness and the social economy

Homelessness and the Social Economy

Homelessness – ‘they’ are not going away – ‘they’ are ‘in your face’. ‘They’ are downtown, annoying business owners, depressing property values, and hassling pedestrians. If you drive ‘them’ out of one locality they will settle in another. The homeless, like all humans, have followed the food, their addictions, or the availability of people to support them. Bottom line - it is likely the hard core homeless, will always be with us. What are we going to do with ‘them’?
What’s got our attention are the visible homeless - the ten per cent hard core chronically homeless and chronically ill - the heavy users of expensive public systems, hospital, jails, and detoxification centers – those who require long term subsidization. Visible homelessness gets our attention but it is only the tapering end of a spectrum of poverty.
The larger question is how to raise the standard of care and support for the entire poverty population. How do we drain the swamp so public systems can deal with the alligators? How do we end rather than manage homelessness? How do we invest in prevention so those in the ninety percent do not drop through the cracks into the hard core ten percent? How do we close the intake door? How do we help those that can be helped? How do we save on future costs for expensive remedial care?
What is needed is a new view of how we share basic human needs of shelter and emotional sustenance. The homeless, the near homeless, street kids, abandoned mothers, all need a home in a village or tribe where they are valued, economically supported, and have a sense of worth and belonging.
Homelessness is not about building a 30x30 block of rooms. Taking a person off the streets and into a sterile home does not remove their sense of isolation and alienation. Homelessness is a state of mind where the heart has no home.
I am not saying that owning a home does not alleviate feelings of isolation and alienation. What I am saying is that operating from feelings of lack (stigmatized as homeless) means living in a perpetual state of ‘want’ as an outsider.
Home is where we belong. Buildings are not just a chunk of cash converted into a warehouse for people. Buildings can evoke feelings of belonging and foster community or feelings of alienation and isolation. What we have done so far is look at square footage and congratulate ourselves. What is needed is to create communities where those in the poverty population feel at home.
John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ is a portrait of "outsiders" amid the sardine canneries, vacant lots, flophouses, and honky-tonks of Monterey, California, struggling to understand their unique places in the world. Cannery Row did not meet building codes or health standards and yet the novel gives us a wonderful view of how the community fostered a sense of belonging. Square footage and building codes do not make community.
We need an end to the various societal concepts of poverty where a segment of society is expected to be in a perpetual state of ‘want’.
There are two major objectives for bringing an end to the various concepts of poverty:-
1) Ending economic segregation;
2) Building community.
Neither is entirely separate from the other. Both alleviate factors that reinforce a state of ‘want’. However, it is important to separate them. Ending economic segregation is a political movement whereas building community is grassroots. Ending economic segregation will be a lengthy process. Building community can be started immediately

Economic segregation.

Ending segregation based on material possessions is to move away from the hostility engendered by blatant comparison where the poor can say, “They have plenty. I can break into their car”. At the other end of the scale the rich use their financial clout to insulate them selves from seeing the poor and remain indifferent to their plight. Politically and socially, segregation into perceived economic winners and losers is opposed to community.
As one way of ending economic segregation the re-introduction of the mixed community would mollify blatant comparison. As Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health and Housing in Britain in 1949 stated,
“…it is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live. If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbors, then they should all be drawn from different sectors of the community. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm laborer all lived in the same street…the living tapestry of a mixed community.”
The homelessness in City Park is a problem. The village drunk we can live with. Allowing a large number of the homeless to congregate in the downtown area of a city is a problem. In a village where the homeless are known the level of acceptance of their capabilities (or lack thereof) tends to be much higher.
In Britain, there is a wide range of opinion on the role of communities that feature a mix of incomes, ages, and household types and how the private and public sector can work together to create such places. A report, published jointly by the Brookings Institution and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in May 2005, reviews the existing research from both the US and the UK for developing mixed communities. The report looks at the factors contributing to economic segregation, consequences of such processes. The report suggests a wide range of factors including broad political support can bring about lasting change. This requires a change of attitude probably extending over several decades. However, what steps can be taken in the immediate future to promote mixed housing?
Bearing in mind the end of economic segregation and the village concept, dispersal of the poverty population into small pockets in a wide area encourages integration into the village community. Concentrating the homeless from a city in a particular geographic area not only creates a ghetto it reinforces a truculence based on numbers. There may be financial advantages to clustering services in a particular location in a city but, in effect, it’s an admission that the homeless cannot be re-introduced into the city community.
The alternative is smaller village communities centered close to the community centers (if they exist) already in place. For example a community center could be considered the village center for some ten thousand people offering a cluster of services addressing the needs of the poverty population. This is a start towards mixed housing and, more importantly, creates the opportunity for a cohesive community.
Encouraging the poverty population to disperse over a wide city area is one thing. Building the mentality for a village community where there is no consciousness of poverty is something else.
How will a village community end the consciousness of poverty?


Our present thoughts of poverty essentially mean a lack of material goods. If there were no obvious lack we would think the person was just another village resident. From that point of view if the apparent lack of material goods did not exist then poverty would not exist.
There is a recycling store called SHARE, a non-profit organization, that recycles donated furniture and clothing. SHARE trucks go to the community and pick up mattresses, beds, fixtures and clothing. The goods are brought to a central store where they are sorted and priced for re-sale. The sorting, pricing, and displaying is done by a number of volunteers.
If we follow the way time is spent by a volunteer, let us call him Larry, it would show that volunteering is not a simple case of donating time without reward. Volunteering may be a misnomer and not a particularly good way of thinking about the social economy.
Larry is on Welfare and from the start there is a difference. Larry had the time to donate to SHARE because he receives a Welfare check. If he were working and fully employed he would not have the time to donate. In other words there must be someone, a husband, or an organization such as a pension fund or Welfare, supporting most people who donate their time to SHARE.
Larry also is very nervous and has difficulty working more than three hours a day. The three hours he spends at SHARE allows him to interact with other volunteers and is socially supportive of him.
This is still called volunteering but Larry is there so he can feel useful and talk to other people. Larry is looking after his best interests, not SHARE’s.
Larry’s time working at SHARE is noted by the administration and when he has sufficient hours he can ask for a particular piece of furniture and will be given it. In fact, Larry can completely furnish his home with donated articles. The money that Larry would have spent on furniture is now available for other uses. Larry has not only benefited socially from his donated time, he has also benefited economically.
If Larry continues to work at SHARE he will accumulate more hours than he can use to buy furniture and clothing. He will have arrived at the economic state of diminishing returns. The hours he works at SHARE no longer ‘pays’ him as well as it did when he needed furniture. It would now benefit him financially to ‘volunteer’ at the food bank and get ‘paid’ in groceries.
If, Larry, and others like him, continue to move to other volunteering situations they are setting up a barter economy, where, depending on their abilities, most of their needs are met. Funds from the Welfare check become spending money and Larry is less likely to feel he is in a state of poverty.
Having the available spending money to buy ‘the little extras’ is a powerful incentive to freedom from a feeling of ‘want’. Mostly, in this society available spending money is thought about in terms of acquiring more funds by work or selling something. However available spending money may be more accessible by bartering and spending less money.
Apart from the economic and social advantages there is another equally powerful reason for volunteering and being involved in some type of work.
Larry may realize that a lot of the stuffed furniture brought in for re-sale has been donated because there is a break in the stuffing. He may be allowed to take the time to restore some of the better pieces that can be sold for a higher price. It does not take much for Larry to view himself as a furniture restorer rather than a person on Welfare. This is a tremendous change of outlook and tends to move him into a state of being accepted and valued within the community. Where people have the time to experiment there are great opportunities in recycling.
Larry and his friends are the start of a small community. They share a common interest in recycling and live and work in close proximity to each other. SHARE and similar organizations in the village/ geographical area provide a meeting place and daily interaction fosters a knowledge and acceptance of each other. A good start.
A synthesis of the mission statements and day-to-day operations of organizations, businesses and individuals already in the social service and social economy field provide an outline for a pro-active program to end poverty.
Were these organizations, businesses and individuals stitched together in a loose confederacy they would become the main batch of programs or initiatives for ending poverty.
The obvious stitching thread is a common currency consolidating SHARE, Larry and his friends, the food bank, recycling, renovators and such like. If Larry’s work as a furniture restorer at SHARE could also allow him to ‘spend’ his ‘donated hours’ at the food bank he would not have to move to someplace to ‘refresh’ his diminishing economic returns. A further advantage of allowing Larry to stay with SHARE would be his increased specialization - for example by acquiring tools of the trade.
Fortunately such a currency is available. It is called the Local Economic Trading System (LETS) and a variation of that system will work. LETS was created in 1983 by Michael Linton from Courtenay, BC, to facilitate the trade of goods and services between the members of his community, in order to alleviate some of the impacts of the recession affecting Courtenay. In the last two decades, the idea of LETS has spread, and it is now estimated that there are thousands of community currencies around the world based on the LETS model, as well as over forty in Canada.
The variation of this system for the social services is that the currency is only available for use in social service organizations and only by those bartering a good or service. Specifically, all food banks, recycling stores, low cost transportation, soup kitchens, non-professional counseling, child care, kindergarten, - all those services operated by and for the poverty population are stitched together by a common currency. There would be no credit extended. Larry has to ‘work’ to have the currency to ‘buy’ professional counseling.
This is not a new scheme. It has been successful on a different level in Spain. In Spain the stitching organization was a credit union and loaned money was used to create a social economy.
The example is Mondragon, a village in the Basque region of northern Spain where nearly 400,000 families deposit their money in a cooperative bank. The Bank creates worker-owned jobs for the community. Since 1958 nearly 20,000 guaranteed for life, worker-owned jobs have been created by the community.
They have formed a hundred and eighty-nine cooperatives of which eighty-nine are industrial. Collectively they are the top producers of appliances (from refrigerators to toasters) and tools (from dye presses to plastic rulers) in Spain. The productivity per worker is the highest in Spain. The profitability of the cooperatives is nearly double that of their competitors.
The people at Mondragon believe they are all in it together: Worker-owners, consumers, bank depositors, and community. If they arrange it so they are all eventually successful in the worker-owner business, then the workers have jobs they can control for life, businesses don’t sink into wasteful crisis management, bank depositors never have to worry about defaulted loans, and the community will never have to worry about disruptive plant closings or absentee owners.
Any city can create the same community spirit about homelessness. Having to do ‘something’ about homelessness is the spark. That ‘something’ is creating a community whose objective is ending poverty through a network or confederacy of organizations that transform the poverty population into recycle business owners, transportation specialists, restaurant workers, construction workers, counselors and child care providers. All the elements are, or can be, in place – work that is valued – a currency of exchange – and, most importantly, the opportunity of a psychological shift from a perpetual state of ‘want’ to the self esteem of a respected member of the community.

Forbes Leslie