The Right to Live: Homelessness and the Privilege of Existence in the United States

Liz Stevens is a Senior here at Pacific University. She’s an Anthropology and Politics & Government double major, and plans to go on to work in public policy and social justice fields after she finishes her formal education. She’s a non-traditional student who has moved a lot, loves books, Netflix, and video games, and misses having a real kitchen to bake in.

The question of the right to live, to exist as a valued person in this world, usually only brings one issue to mind in this country—that of abortion. But all issues of bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, and fetal rights aside, there is another group that we repeatedly deny the very right to exist: the homeless.

Homelessness is an ongoing issue in this country, one that dates back to colonial days. While most individuals might identify homelessness as a social problem, few would have any idea of how to address it other than ‘make those people get jobs.’

Our cultural myths emphasize the ability of each individual to accomplish their dreams, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if they just try hard enough. This attitude encourages willful blindness toward the political, economic, biological, and social factors that hinder many people from being able to afford basic necessities, much less achieve any kind of success. Support for social services  designed to help those who are struggling is usually weak politically, at least in part due to the belief that anyone who fails in the system we have created fails due to their own lack of effort rather than outside factors.

As a result of these beliefs about individual effort and reward, many things have become commodities rather than rights: from employment to housing to food. The homeless, often the most visible ‘failures’; are frequent recipients of scorn, discomfort, and lack of a desire to assist. General beliefs and myths arise around the homeless, including that many are doing it because it makes money, or alternatively, because they’re too lazy to get actual jobs. The homeless community is believed to be primarily made up of drug addicts (and thus already of lesser value), single adult males, and others who through choice or their own actions—or lack of actions—have brought the situation on themselves. Many studies have shown this to be false, including a recent series on homelessness by the Oregonian, which stated that approximately a third of the homeless community in Washington county is made up of families and children.

The significant number of homeless children (including queer youth and former foster children), veterans, individuals over the age of fifty, and mentally and physically disabled individuals are ignored, or again blamed on deviancy, laziness, and addiction, rather than the system that fails to support them.

I experienced homelessness myself as a child, and have faced the fear of it more than once as an adult. I have also borne witness far too many times to the negative stereotypes, dismissal, and outright distaste, that the majority of people in this country seem to hold for those without homes —including the students here at Pacific University. While waiting in line at the UC, and walking to class, I’ve overheard students saying they ‘hated the homeless’ and ‘they’re all drug addicts anyways,’ among other such statements.

We need to ask ourselves, as students, as citizens, as human beings, what makes it okay for one person’s existence to be supported, valued, deemed worthy of actively participating in society, and another person not? Why are we okay with living in a world where people just like us, where children, can live in the so-called wealthiest nation in the world and not have a roof over their heads, not have enough food to eat, not have access to basic medical care?

Why aren’t we creating catchy slogans and parading around with disturbing imagery on signs to protest this large segment of our society that lacks the basic necessities of life?

Why do you deserve a home?

If you’re interested in learning more, or becoming a part of the solution, join us this Saturday, March 5th, at 1pm in Taylor Auditorium, Marsh Hall, for a Symposium on Homelessness in Forest Grove. There will be a panel of experts, breakout sessions on various topics, and snacks! The official event page can be found here. 


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