1960’s “Free Store” and Today’s Homeless (EP.271)

Personal choices are what hold street people down. Personal choices are what holds anyone down, or lifts them up. That is the subject of today's 10-minute episode."
Personal choices are what hold street people, the homeless, down.

Introduction

“If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.” -Yogi Berra, Baseball Hall of Fame catcher.

“If people do not want to change, nobody’s going to stop ‘em.” -Will Luden, Host, Revolution 2.0™

That is the subject of today’s 10-minute episode. 

Continuing

In the 1960s in Boulder, Colorado, I was peripherally involved in a group that opened a “Free Store” in downtown Boulder. The noble, naive and unstudied motive was to provide free clothing, and eventually, medical services, to people living on the streets, as a way of changing their lives. With high hopes and the sense of being on a breakthrough, anti-capitalist mission, the store was stocked with a good starting quantity of clean, used clothing displayed on the usual retail racks and shelves. There was even a starter amount of medical supplies. The buzz started when the first street people came in. There was disappointment when the first “shoppers” took off the clothes they were wearing, dropped them onto the floor, put on fresh gear, and left without a word. The buzz turned to frustration, and finally to resignation as this scene was repeated multiple times a day. The “store” closed after a few weeks, with the street people (the term for the homeless at the time) complaining about the lack of selection as the volunteers stopped bringing in more clothing.

Do any of you remember what I call the “How many does it take?” jokes? One that comes to mind is, “How many Microsoft engineers does it take to change a light bulb?” A. “None, Microsoft just declares darkness to be a standard.” Now that I have prepped you, try this one. “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” A. “None. The light bulb has to want to change.”

Ond of the things that makes jokes funny is the element of truth in them. Yogi was right that baseball fans must want to come to the ballpark. And it is true that an individual needs to want to change before anything new can happen. The free store approach in Boulder, and other free stores at the time, made the dreamy assumption that street people, if cared for and given clean clothing in good repair, would begin to change their lives, practically on the spot. The assumption underlying this naivete, was that “the system”, notably capitalism, was holding them down. Not true. Personal choices are what hold street people down. Personal choices are what holds anyone down, or lifts them up.

Today’s Housing First approach to the homeless makes the same unfounded assumption as did the philosophy behind the Free Stores. But it is not the system, it is not the absence of affordable housing; it is personal choices. And not just one or two bad decisions; it is always a series of poor personal choices over time. 

Let’s take a look at the evolution of the terms used for people living on the streets:

  • Town Drunk, derelict
  • Bums and vagrants.
  • Homeless
  • Unhoused
  • Without a permanent address

There are successful pushes to change the terminology and dramatically raise the amount of taxpayer funding that goes toward “solving” the homeless problem. But there are no successful pushes to correct or alleviate homelessness. The number of homeless, the garbage generated, and negatively affected neighborhoods, continues to soar. Why? 

Because the light bulb needs to want to change. Because you can’t go and force fans to come to the ballpark even if you offer them a free ride, anymore than you can force the homeless to change the choices they make about how they live their lives if you offer them free food and a hotel room. 

So, Will, what’s the solution? The first thing to understand is that not all of the homeless can or even want to be “saved.” In fact, only a small percentage can. Many are quite happy with their so-called freedom and access to a variety of drugs. Others are so far gone with mental illness, perhaps either caused or amplified by drug addiction, that they either do not want to be, or cannot be, helped. There is a percentage of the homeless who will be open to change, and a smaller percentage who will be willing to do the required work at their end. It will take a combination of an assumption of personal responsibility by the homeless person, and a personal, one-on-one commitment by others in a position to help, both entities working hard over time, to win the occasional victory. To extract a homeless person from the tent village, and to do the harder work of changing their thinking. That newly liberated formerly homeless person can now stand on his own two feet, and is now in the perfect position to help others who are in shabby living conditions, with similarly shabby thinking. 

The current strategy of throwing money and other resources at a largely disinterested, or even resistive, growing homeless population is doing absolutely nothing productive. Add in a permissive approach to tent and lean to villages on public property, and turning a deaf ear, with many critical reactions, to concerned neighbors and neighborhoods, and you encourage the growth of the homeless and their encampments. 

  1. Who would support strategies that obviously stimulate the explosion in homelessness? A. Politicians who want to paint over the problem long enough to keep getting reelected. I liken this to painting over rust. Voters who want to feel good about themselves, without caring enough to understand what is really happening as a result of the “feel good” homeless strategies. If you want to get a taste of what is really going on, check out what is happening an hour up the road from me in Colorado Springs: Denver in Decay.   

Earlier we said that the solution to homelessness is a combination of personal responsibility and a one-on-one commitment from others. That is true about everything in life. This truth gives rise to the core, driving principles at Revolution 2.0 which are:

  1. Personal Responsibility; take it, teach it and,
  2. Be Your Brother’s Keeper. The answer to the biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a ringing, unequivocal “Yes.” There is no other answer.

There is nothing easy about this path to getting things done, and easy never accomplished anything worthwhile. Being either personally responsible or for being your Brother’s Keeper is simple, straightforward, hard, and more than worthwhile. Doing both is very hard. And truly well worth it, and the only way to get anything truly beneficial accomplished.

Tell me what you believe. I and many others want to know. 

As always, whatever you do, do it in love. Without love, anything we do is empty.

Contact

As we get ready to wrap up, please do respond in the episodes with comments or questions about this episode or anything that comes to mind, or connect with me on Twitter, @willluden, Facebook, facebook.com/will.luden, and LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com/in/willluden/. And you can subscribe on your favorite device through Apple, Google, or Stitcher.

If you liked today’s episode, other episodes or the revolution2-0.org site itself, comment, subscribe, and encourage others to subscribe with you. Each One Reach One will help spread the word about Revolution 2.0™.

Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.

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7 Responses

  1. Charles Cabral Reply

    Homelessness is something that I ponder about a lot. There are many reasons people become “unsheltered” (the favored term here in Hawaii). I do not know the percentages, but, as you say, some are there because of mental illness (why do we not institutionalize them for their own protection?). Some are there because of substance abuse. Some are there because physical or intellectual/psychological limitations prevent them from supporting themselves financially. Here, many are there because the income they earn is less than the going rate in a tight housing market. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that one size fits all solutions do not work.
    I think that the failure of the Free Store and any similar effort may be that they are trying to be the solution. As Christians (and Jews also), we are not called to solve the problems, but to practice mercy and promote justice. Yes, there should be an effort to reduce the problem by increasing the housing supply, providing rehab, etc., but such efforts as the local River of Life Mission and Institute of Human Services at least can address some of the symptoms and possibly direct folks individually to the specific services, government or not, that may provide a path for them.

  2. David Nation Reply

    “Personal choices are what hold street people down.”   This from a person who has actually enjoyed the prospect of having choices throughout his life.  Sorry to tell you, Will, but you are still quite naive.  You didn’t benefit much from that Boulder education. I wouldn’t express this level of attitude toward you, Will, but you continue, with each new episode, to exhibit the same level of ignorance. Why do you continue to write about things that you should instead be reading about?

    • Will Luden Reply

      David, we all have choices, and we make them every day. For example, you continue to be critical of my podcasts, using nothing but generalities and personal comments. How about choosing to address the specifics of my arguments?

      • I'm simply saying that your approach is nothing but religious. It's not effective because it relies on individuals to act in ways for which they lack time and access. Reply

        I’m simply saying that your approach is nothing but religious. In this specific instance, It’s not effective because it relies on individuals to act in ways for which they lack time and access.
        Yes. I’m critical of your religious approach to everything because it’s full of cherry-picking and ignores the power of human beings to solve human problems.

  3. David Nation Reply

    A great number of the homeless in California are the result of the Reagan governorship during which he closed all the state-funded mental health facilities. The patients in these facilities were simply put out on the street with zero support. Their illness and their plight were not the results of any personal choices. And, of course, the politicians who put them on the streets professed a belief in Christianity. Individual efforts are nice, but when an epidemic occurs, it takes a combined effort of us all, regardless of religious beliefs or lack thereof, to address the problem. This is one of the functions of our government. But it costs money. That money comes from taxes. And everyone has an incentive to avoid taxes if at all possible.

    In answer to Cain, the Lord, in your book, did not answer “Yes.” What Cain was really saying was that his brother was not his problem. And the Lord cursed him for it. As humans, we have the ability to collectively make the choice to be our brother’s keepers. But one at a time we simply lack the resources to deal with the magnitude to which the problem has been allowed to grow.

  4. Thomas W Fischer Reply

    Dear Will,
    I love your statement “As humans, we have the ability to collectively make the choice to be our brother’s keepers”. For me, it’s making the choice to recognize that all of us are children of God. I don’t believe in the Housing First model. I do believe that many of the homeless need a hand up rather than a hand out.
    Tom Fischer

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