“By adapting and adjusting to randomness, you shape but do not control your endpoint.” ― Bob Deutsch
“Without the sleeping bag I’m just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I’m nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived.” ― Craig Stone
I started writing this essay on July 4th, Independence Day, which began as a quiet morning that ended in fireworks. It wasn’t a random occurrence, but planned. What happened in between was a combination of the two, the interplay of intention and randomness. Lately, with all the random and planned violence, inequality and poverty in the world, it’s an unsettling and dangerous time, difficult to know how to prevent tragedy, how to be safe, and how to engage in the discourse and solutions.
Uncharacteristically, this blog essay has been a work in progress —slow, one step at a time, take a break, contemplate, a measured kind of progress. My blogging style is typically to choose a topic and begin pre-writing or outlining in my head. When I’m solid with a theme or topic, I usually draft it in a single session, edit, and post. During the past 11 days as another tragedy occurred, another video or live streaming of a deadly traffic stop, or ambush of police, another protest, and another death, I worked on it in fits and starts.
Then, on Bastille Day, July, 14th in Nice, France the horrific murder of men, women, and children as they left the fireworks and walked the Promenade des Anglais which was closed to vehicles until a freight truck driver, a lone terrorist, began shooting and mowed down and killed 84 people and injured over 200 more. Yesterday it was followed by a failed coup attempt by the military to overthrow the government in Turkey. I found myself unable to access words to express my emotional response to the unfolding events. I’m not a journalist in the conventional sense, so I couldn’t keep up with the changing story. I’m more a commentator than reporter, so I needed time in between to reflect. It became overwhelming.
The following topics are issues that have been on my mind as I’ve reacted to the news in Madison and the world. I was curious how they may intersect or overlay with some degree of synchronicity. They are home/homelessness, equality/oppression, and safety/danger. I usually don’t like to look at life in dualities, but today it helps me parse the meaning of my world and look at the forces at work both in and outside of my control. I intended to address all three topics in a single essay until I found the scope of it too large for me to emotionally handle. Instead, I’ll tackle them one at a time and hopefully still be able to connect the dots on how they interface and intersect.
Today’s essay takes a look at home and homelessness. Shelter is one of our most basic human needs, it is part of the foundation of the physiological requirements as described by Herbert Maslow in his paper in 1943, A Theory of Human Motivation and illustrated in his Hierarchy of Needs.
If I were asked how to describe my fundamental philosophy or outlook on life, I would answer that it’s existentialism, defined as “a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.” However, I’ve learned by experience that many random occurrences outside of our control can alter or impact our intentions, choices, and change the trajectory and outcomes of our journeys.
I begin today by breaking a promise. I told my friends, family, and followers of Mixed Metaphors, Oh My! that I was finished talking about moving —apparently, I’m not — I have more to say. I begin by stating, I’m grateful. I need to acknowledge and repeat it as often as I can. As I enjoy my new home and the space I’ve created and experience how it feeds my spirit and meets my needs, I also realize that others are not as fortunate as I am.
To quote a slogan of 12-step recovery programs, a prayer of gratitude, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Admittedly, I’m not a religious person but that prayer provides comfort and is a reminder of how fortunate I truly am.
I moved due to the high rents in Madison. My income could not keep pace with my outlay for rent. I’m also planning ahead for phased retirement from full to part-time to eventually becoming fully retired. Developers continue to build new luxury apartments while a shortage of affordable units persists. Unfortunately, many developers don’t consider including affordable housing in their project unless local governments step in with tax incentives like Tax Incremental Financing (TIFs) or their projects qualify for other programs like the Wisconsin Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) financing and incentives.
The vacancy rate remains low too, at 2%, so management companies and owners feel little pressure to adjust rental rates to be more competitive. Options for housing in the current market feature upscale apartments with high rents and an abundance of amenities, and older buildings requiring overdue maintenance and increased monthly rents to cover the cost of upgrading, and tenants with bad credit or poor work or rental history are oten forced to pay inflated rents, often for properties with code violations, or neighborhood crime or safety issues.
For a single person or couple, the average rent for an apartment in Madison, Wisconsin is currently $1302. The average monthly rent of a one bedroom apartment is $1159, a two bedroom, $1436. This is a trend not unique to Madison, but a growing problem, especially in larger metropolitan cities like San Francisco and New York City. Many millennials, due to the high cost of a college education and the burden of student loans, remain living with their parents as they seek employment in their career field.
A monthly income required for a single person to live modestly in Madison, Wisconsin is $29,422 annually, or $2,452 a month. For a family of four, according to the Economic Policy Institute, to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living a family in metropolitan Madison would need to earn a monthly income of $6,271, totaling $75,252 annually. It doesn’t take a math whiz or economist to crunch the numbers and identify the problem. Of that monthly budget, a family of four is earmarked $898 for housing after childcare, health coverage, transportation and more. That gap is horrifying.
University of Wisconsin alumni and director of Harvard’s Justice and Poverty Project, Matthew Desmond, in his groundbreaking New York Times bestselling book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, states, “In 2013 between 50 and 70 percent of poor renting families spent half of their income on housing and between 25 and 50 percent spent at least 70 percent on it.” Furthermore when rent payments are missed due to hardship or timing, or are withheld until code violations and improvements are made, the next destination, often for single mothers with children, is the streets. Recent changes in Wisconsin law have caused tenants to lose rights while landlords have gained more discretion in screening applicants, and made it is easier to evict tenants.
Homelessness has been on the increase. Many of our homeless are veterans, or single women and single mothers with children, at-risk adolescents and LGBTQ youth, and people suffering from untreated mental illness and/or addiction. Some cities, including Madison and San Francisco have succeeded or attempted to pass ordinances which restrict where and for how long the homeless can sleep. Fines are levied with escalating penalties. The irony is with the shortage of Section 8 and affordable housing, the path to the streets has been expedited by the lack jobs that pay living wages, the high cost of healthcare, plus overtaxed homeless shelters, a shortage of transitional housing and cut-backs in social services, support and safety nets.
What are the solutions?
I don’t know the answer, but like most problems, the first thing we need to do is not turn our heads away from the homeless or pretend it’s not our problem. It is. When some people suffer, especially vulnerable populations, we are failing in our civic duty as a society. When we talk about quality of life it shouldn’t be in reference to only a sector of the population, but everyone in our community. We need to share resources, treat mental illness and addiction rather than incarcerate, and stop abandoning individuals and families without jobs, or the ability to earn living wages or obtain affordable training and education, pushing them into the streets rather than sheltering and feeding them. When the cost of shelter, childcare, and healthcare continues to increase, and jobs and wages don’t keep pace, it’s a disaster in the making.
As I drafted this essay I realized it’s my job to become more informed, to better understand the causes of the problem and what my role is in helping to identify and create solutions. The intersectionality of homelessness, inequality, race, poverty, joblessness, gender identity, and addiction are symptoms of the failure of our capitalist society and the unequal distribution of wealth. These are not new problems, but like untreated mental illness or addiction, it will only get worse. It’s past time for change.
In future essays, I’ll take a look at the interplay of choice and randomness in equality/oppression and safety/danger. Deep breath. These are heavy topics.
Additional Reading on Home/Homelessness