Political Theory for the Homeless

Homelessness policymakers don’t often consult political theorists, which is understandable. John Locke’s corpus seems a world removed from the street crisis now afflicting cities like San Francisco. The need for solutions is urgent. In some contexts, it is healthy for intellectuals to debate the philosophical foundations of liberalism, and whether moral truth is subjective. Still, these weighty questions may not seem particularly germane to the question of homelessness. 

But theory, properly understood, grounds us. It clarifies the stakes of any policy debate by examining the principles behind it, such as freedom, equality, justice, and compassion. What happens when our principles clash? The most compassionate response to homelessness might not be the one that’s most respectful of freedom. Politicians flatter us that our prejudices are true and say we can have it all; political theorists question the philosophical basis of our norms and show how and why they’re often irreconcilable. Social science can evaluate the effectiveness of certain policies—“what works”—but it’s theory’s job to determine what standards for evaluation we should use. The same program may be highly successful at housing formerly homeless people but unsuccessful at making them sober and employable.

While political theory may not promise any immediate fix to homelessness, it’s more useful than is commonly appreciated. Relativism and the government’s responsibility for the good life are two historic concerns of political theorists that have a direct bearing on homelessness policy in America.

About 15 years ago, Housing First proponents launched something called the “campaign to end homelessness.” It did not succeed, even after billions were spent on it.

The government officially classifies 550,000–600,000 Americans as “homeless.” This is an extremely troubled population. Two leading drivers of homelessness are unemployment and addiction. But many homeless advocates criticize sobriety- and employment-oriented programs as overly aspirational. What’s most important, they argue, is for government to get everyone into housing. Then, secondarily, we can talk about goals like sobriety and employment. This philosophy is known as “Housing First” and all major homeless services systems in America ascribe to it.

About 15 years ago, Housing First proponents launched something called the “campaign to end homelessness.” It did not succeed, even after billions were spent on it. In the eyes of many, that failure has weakened Housing First’s credibility. But that’s an empirical matter; the more important criticisms of Housing First are normative, which is to say, theoretical. Housing First is simply indifferent to the good life. Housing is, to be sure, a good, but it’s a lower good than employment and sobriety. A human life with housing but without employment and sobriety is far from whole. Thus, no program for helping the homeless that neglects those higher goals can claim to be fully helping the homeless.

We therefore see in homelessness policy a certain manifestation of “low but solid” liberalism. The turn away from achieving the good life, towards a focus on securing the conditions for it, is characteristic of modern political thought. Modern liberal philosophers, Locke most notably, argued for the foundational status of lower goods such as life, liberty, and property. The ancient philosophers focused on moral excellence or flourishing. The moderns called for governments to reorient themselves away from those higher goods since it’s impossible to flourish while one’s life is threatened, or amidst deprivation and sickness. But problems arise when the lower goods, often presented as merely the means to a greater, fuller life, morph into ends in themselves. Leo Strauss expressed this tendency in his memorable characterization of Lockean liberalism as the “joyless quest for joy.”

In the hierarchy of human goods, sobriety and employment occupy a much lower rank than Aristotelian virtue. But they’re what passes for higher goods in homelessness policy. Sobriety and employment are systematically neglected in homelessness policymakers’ pursuit of housing as the only meaningful measure of success. Must we keep putting off any real discussion of higher goods until permanent, affordable housing is in place for everyone? That would entail providing such housing not only for the half-million-plus currently homeless Americans but for all those poised to fall into homelessness tomorrow, months and years from now. We would wind up waiting a long time. Housing First critics like to ask “what happens when people close the door”? A man has been moved off the street. Government has given him his own private apartment, with a lease with his name on it, in which he can stay as long as he likes. We hope that he will use that housing as a foundation for a better life, but should we do more than hope? When people continue with their destructive behavior after being housed, how does hope differ from abandonment? 

In the 1950s, Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History identified relativism as a defining problem of modern times. His student Allan Bloom brought that claim into the mainstream, and traced out its consequences for American higher education, in his bestselling Closing of the American Mind (1987). But some believe Strauss and Bloom to be off the mark with their relativism obsession, pointing to the modern left’s increasingly normative assertiveness. Think of free speech. College campuses seem to have grown less tolerant of free and open debate over the years, which would seem to suggest that they’ve grown, if anything, less relativistic. But social policy debates, like the one about homelessness, prove Strauss and Bloom correct by revealing relativism’s influence. This can be seen in the respect accorded to arguments that rely on the concept of “lived experience.”

“Lived experience”-based arguments ground a claim—such as the claim that Housing First is the solution to homelessness—on just that, one’s personal experience. “What homeless people need is housing, period. I know this because I am homeless/I used to be homeless.” In the homelessness debate, if you have not personally ever been homeless, you are expected simply to listen and defer to a homeless person when he or she is weighing in.

In civic debate, there’s a difference between, on the one hand, beginning from shared premises—natural law, tradition, the Bible—and coming to different conclusions, and, on the other, beginning from non-shared premises. The former is preferable, but relativism undermines the possibility of objective, shared premises from which to argue. That opens the door to subjective, lived experience-based arguments.

In homelessness debates, lived experience arguments are advanced through newspaper editorials, on social media, and in panel discussions. Government encourages the rhetorical invocation of “lived experience.” Government-funded organizations that serve homeless people are sometimes required to appoint current or former homeless people to their boards. Service organizations often employ current or former homeless people as “peer counselors,” whose job is to bring their past experience to bear in helping other current or former homeless people.

We have more access to our individual selves than others’ selves, but that very closeness, and our self-love, breeds delusion. 

Progressives pioneered the tactic. They routinely manipulate “lived experience” by foregrounding the more decorous homeless people well-versed in the party line and shunting away the more disturbing cases. People who push others to death on the subway rarely get asked to speak on panels. Beat journalists—by and large progressives—regularly interview homeless people but they do not press them overmuch on the often-vague details about how they wound up where they are. As a result, news reports tend to portray homeless Americans as straightforward victims of circumstance. For their part, conservatives often take an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude toward lived experience. They seek out people who have overcome their addictions and can speak from experience about the value of tough love.

Much can be learned, to be sure, by listening to people in recovery. But excessive deference to lived experience as a standard of truth can be harmful. By instilling a strange pride in being homeless, it tends to encourage an entitlement mindset. Homeless advocates propagate the belief that it’s somehow empowering to wait for government to provide you with your own private apartment. It’s the righteous, clear-minded man who holds strong to his conviction that the system failed him; he wound up on street not because of anything he did, but because of injuries inflicted by others. This attitude inhibits social integration. A healthy respect for personal responsibility helps repair “burned bridges” with friends and family. Homeless people come from communities made up of many working-class adults who do not think of themselves as victims and consider burdensome those who do see themselves in that light. Lived experience rests on a facile conception of self-knowledge. We have more access to our individual selves than others’ selves, but that very closeness, and our self-love, breeds delusion. 

The relativistic thrust of lived experience-based arguments is civically corrosive. There can’t be any common good if everyone’s content to ground their views in their own personal experience. Using lived experience as a rhetorical trump card bars the non-homeless from fully participating in the debate, though their stake in the question is vast. You can’t have a healthy community without public spaces—parks, streets, plazas, transit systems, beaches—that are genuinely shared. And you can’t have a healthy public square if lived experience is respected as widely as it now is in homelessness circles. Deep down, as Strauss and Bloom knew, no one is a relativist. Everyone holds some values sacred. But pointing out that no one’s really a relativist does not refute the thesis that relativism shapes the modern world. Relativism’s influence is profound, if indirect.

In crafting programs to help the homeless, both lived-experienced insights and permanent housing should have roles to play, but their roles should be smaller than they are now. Lived experience should be seen as one contribution among many rather than a final authority. Similarly, permanent housing is only one good among many. Even if government can’t promise flourishing for the homeless, shouldn’t we still expect it to aim higher than the avoidance of material deprivation? If so, policy should reflect that. 


St Louis 1918

Rediscovering Home

If much of T.S. Eliot's work expresses a tragic sense of cosmic homelessness, just as much anticipates a reconciliation with our origins.