letter to a student about homelessness

In early 2021, a high school student from southern California wrote to me asking for advice about her senior project addressing homelessness. I guessed she had found my long and boring article published in Urban Lawyer (2017). But even in the few years since 2017, what had become glaringly obvious was an additional problem I had not addressed in the previous article: the working homeless (putting in 40+ hours a week) who still could not afford housing, especially in the popular urban centers of California, but increasingly in many other states. Homelessness is one of those notoriously complex and persistent problems that has defied policy solutions for more than half a century now.

Merely one, vastly simplified, multifaceted, ever-evolving dynamic that characterizes some homelessness, but far from all. Even simple vicious circles rarely tell the entire story, as partially illustrated in the graphic below. (author’s graphics)

In any case, here was my response, accompanied by some updated visuals that never got included with the 2017 Urban Lawyer article:

February 3, 2021
Dear Lesly,

I commend you for choosing a challenging and worthwhile topic!

Embedding case studies within a broader framework sounds like an excellent approach. You are correct; many generalize or ignore the homelessness problem. And, upon further analysis, generalizations about the homeless tend to break down immediately. Still, uncovering the details can be difficult. If you have access to a veteran homeless counselor or social service worker, they might be a gold mine of information about an array of case studies. To name but one pattern, many homeless people come from abusive family situations. But it can take years for a counselor working with the same individual to discover such information in any detail. Mental illness is another pattern, but is probably even more inherently difficult to penetrate in any detail. Substance abuse and mental illness often form their own little vicious circles within larger vicious circles of homelessness, unemployment, poor health care, lack of personal stability, etc.

Counselors and social workers can also tell you about negative effects upon the homeless and the communities where they camp. City employees assigned to deal with the homeless (such as cleaning up homeless camps) can be good sources of information about effects on communities. Finally, anywhere there is a substantial homeless population, people who work in hospital emergency rooms can tell you what they encounter on a regular basis with the homeless seeking medical care.

As I’m sure you appreciate, speaking directly with the homeless can be dangerous; if you feel this is necessary for your project, definitely always have an adult companion with you, preferably a professional such as those described above. Interviewing homeless people with a social worker might be a great way to gather useful information directly from the homeless themselves. On the other hand, social workers might already have this information for you and could possibly give it to you using pseudonyms to protect their clients’ privacy.

As for homelessness being a national issue, a clear problem here is a widespread and pervasive lack of affordable housing. Housing policy is an interrelated topic with homelessness, but one that actually merits a separate study. The phrase, the “missing middle” of housing, comes up frequently; meaning rentals or even small homes that low income people could afford. California may well be the epicenter of working people who are also homeless! Housed people stereotyping the homeless as unemployed are missing a major story here. On this topic, here is an article that might be of tremendous help: Tessa Stuart, “Why Can’t California Solve Its Housing Crisis?,” Rolling Stone (Sept. 5, 2019).

Organizations like “NeighborWorks America” are trying to intervene with this affordable housing crisis. So you are correct, “housing, unemployment and not much of a choice” are central to your research paper, and they are all interrelated. Like housing policy, unemployment is a huge subtopic unto itself, and often shows up as a factor in the vicious circles described above. But as a society we might also ask ourselves, “Are there housing options for working people, or unemployed people who are eager to work?” Often the answer is no, not even close. And, if this is true of skilled laborers earning much more than minimum wage, then it is far worse for unskilled laborers — and yet, every society needs someone doing both unskilled and skilled labor.

I hope this helps, and I wish you every success with your project!

Will Sarvis

Updated “mind map,” yet eternally in flux and incomplete (author’s graphic, made via FreeMind)

Copyright © 2021 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.



Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.