“What are you going to do about that homeless guy?” This is a natural question posed to an officer of The Salvation Army. The only proper response is, “What homeless guy?” The conversation usually continues with a descriptor, “the one on the corner of,” to which I reply, “What is his name?”. This often ends the conversation. What is his name? What is her name? Where are they from? What is it that they want to experience? Who is their community?

It’s interesting. Many see these questions as unreasonable or unnecessary, yet these were the questions recognized as important even at the 1818 Society on Pauperism in New York City. The Society recognized that pauperism, begging, is a contagious ill. If people make more money begging than they do working, then it is economically rationale for people to beg more and work less. Indeed, economics is solid that those without housing may have more flexible money than those who are housed. The cost, years of life.

Back to the Society on Pauperism. The Society created a plan of action. Divide the city into sections and send out teams to meet the paupers to determine their names, their goals, and a path to employment and housing. This is one reason I support The Contributor. People are known by name, supported in micro-enterprise, and work for a legitimate income. Their lives are changed through the reward of community, purpose, work.

The solution to begging is one of the most challenging questions of classism; “What is your name?”. Only the courageous continue the conversation with “How is your day?” or “What is your hope?” In fact, we now pay professionals to ask these questions, plus a few more, that were in the action plan of 1818 in New York. We know how to reduce despair and personal destruction. Most of us hope that someone else will do it.

When people get frustrated by this creative abrasion they then ask, “What about that guy who chooses to be homeless?” You see people usually use the stereotype guy question because we like women and families more. So when we are frustrated, it is always, “that guy.”

“Oh…That guy who chose to be homeless,” I respond, “I haven’t met him yet.” Now I have met people who have chosen not to leave the communities of social displacement, and that may be the root of the question. First the “choice” issue. Again, economics can show that short term sheltering can be an economically rational choice. If you have a loss of job, increased rent, new to the city, a health crisis, a life event and you need a place to stay for a few days, then sheltering service is a rational economic choice. Most people who experience social, economic, or environmental displacement never stay in a shelter. They stay with family and friends. When this is no longer an option, then they enter a shelter. The majority use the public investment of their shelter experience to save and restart out in the community; quickly again recognized as my neighbors and yours.

Then there are those with more significant needs. I contend, most often, long-term displaced neighbors have experienced a breakdown of family, community and too often, self. That is because I believe that family and community are the proper response to life events. For those who may not have those options, there is too often an experience of social displacement.

When people lose one community, they naturally search until they find another. Most cities have many strong communities of people who love each other and do not live in housing. These communities can be located under bridges, in tent encampments, on corners on Friday afternoons celebrating a hard work week, and other places that most outside their community don’t like to see them. These are communities of care, compassion, friendship, and family. While I haven’t met the guy who “chose” to be homeless, I have met many people who choose to find their home in an outcast community. They will continue to live in the “where” they can.

Amazingly in Nashville, we then discuss how we, as a city,displaced the “homeless” from an encampment. This confounds my mind. While short-term experiences of staying on couches, in shelters, or in supported housing can be economically rational, the community people meet in these compassion centers can be attractive and can actually increase the days of homelessness experienced. Increased days…increase years. Simply, the longer someone is displaced, the longer they will be displaced. This is especially true when the person decides, and is essentially paid, to create a home outside of society’s housing structure. Days… Years… Death.

Yes, death. It is a quality of life problem. On average, those who experience long term living outside of housing suffer from decreased health and well-being. (Now some of you will want to talk about mental health and addiction. First, please remember, most people with mental health and addiction issues live in your neighborhood, in housing.) So, that “guy” we are talking about is likely to die before fifty years old. Every city has one long night a year to remember “him” and those who died without housing. Imagine, people die 25- years earlier because of social displacement. No, don’t imagine, know this as a truth.

When the community, outside of the housing, health, and hope, find a more welcoming home outside our social norms, they perish.

While we mourn this truth, we have to determine if it is problematic enough to change the community and welcome people home as neighbors. Not because we do not want to see them on the streets, but because we see them. They are our neighbors. The question is not about “that guy who chooses to be homeless” that stays nowhere and anywhere. The problem is more about that guy, that gal, or that neighborhood that either chooses to extend community by welcoming people in or by pushing people out.

This is Tennessee. We love our neighbors here. Might we be home for each other, together?

Contributor:  Major Ethan Frizzell serves as the Area Commander of The Salvation Army.  The Salvation Army has been serving in Middle TN since 1899.  A graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, his focus is the syzygy of the community culture, the systems of service, and the lived experience of our neighbors. He uses creative abrasion to rub people just the wrong way so that an offense may cause interaction and then together we can create behaviorally designed solutions to nudge progress. Simply, negotiating the future for progress that he defines as Quality of Life in Jesus!

Misty Ratcliff