A luxury, New York City skyscraper made the news recently for its plans to have a separate door to its affordable housing units. Opponents called this “poor door” illegal segregation. Someone in subsidized housing, however, said it’d be a small price to pay to live in such a building. This very practical view got me thinking about prejudice and homelessness. When you need a roof over your head, you can’t afford to care as much about how it gets there as you care about having it. When you’re the one providing it, though, you can’t afford not to care, not if your interest is in preventing and ending homelessness.
While getting a roof over everyone’s head is a vital goal, by itself it won’t solve the problem of homelessness. The factors that contribute to anyone being in such a vulnerable position are often multiple and complex, and occur at a societal level and not just at an individual one. So it turns out that if a roof is needed, how a roof is provided is incredibly important. Otherwise, making sure that there are roofs for everyone, and that everyone has one, won’t be enough.
People working to prevent and end homelessness know this—whether they strive to prevent or end their own, partner with people who do, or tackle the issue at the policy level. They know personal safety, quality relationships, health, good-paying employment, coping skills, educational opportunity, freedom from prejudice, and communities of people who care about each other are among the essential things each of us needs in order to flourish, to reach our full potential. These have to be part and parcel of what is being worked for. Yet getting a roof over everyone’s head can’t wait for all of these. Circumstances force solutions to become stop-gap, as partial as they are urgent. In the hurly-burly of emergency, it can be easy to forget or dismiss these other essential things.
When survival is at stake, attending to anything more than that can seem a dangerous luxury. Yet if all that is achieved is survival, it’s not sufficient. We all want, hope for, and need more. The larger goal of directly pursuing human flourishing is not a luxury. It’s what a just society is about. Avoiding threats to survival—such as hunger, sickness, and homelessness—is critical, but it’s not the whole thing. We need a broader vision for creating environments where everyone has the opportunity to flourish. This vision cannot come after we have figured out how to eliminate all threats to safety. It must be part of the work of ending homelessness from the very beginning.
We need to focus on homelessness to solve it, and we need to focus on human flourishing to know how to do so in a lasting way. One of the reasons we’ve not yet achieved the goal of ending homelessness is not because that goal is too big, but because we keep forgetting it’s part of a larger goal, and can’t be solved without it.