- Tessa Vanbrabant
Why we need to radically recognise the Homeless
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
The prominent presence of Homeless people in society is a ‘phenomenon’ that evokes a set of divergent reactions. Some people are annoyed with them, others do not even notice them because they are an ‘integral part of the landscape of a city’. ‘Obviously’, any big city has its Homeless people – that is just ‘how it works’. This kind of normalisation of structural injustice(s) encourages a blind, blaming and insensitive understanding of the Homeless as actual people like you and I.
One particular example: my landlord in Dublin considered homelessness to be an individual choice. Baffled by this blatant statement, I wonder how he reconciles the extreme housing crisis (as a political and economic matter) that is ruling over Dublin – mainly by private landlords like himself – with the extremely precarious living conditions of being Homeless as a personal choice. “If they would only get a job so that they could pay for the rent, there would not be a problem” is a common follow-up line of argument. However, fundamentally overlooked is that in order to be employed, one needs to be housed. In order to make a money transfer, or to have a bank account, one needs a residence.
This practical participation in life does not consider the inhumane conditions of Homelessness; no shelter or provision of material basic needs (e.g. water and electricity) nor immaterial basic needs (e.g. safety, security or privacy). Neither does this consider the inhumane conditions (violence, abuse, neglect, the list goes on…) that cause homelessness – these are not a matter of choice. The supposedly ‘easy’ solution, as presented by my landlord, departs from the premise assumed by those who consider society to meet the standard of liberal principles – that ‘everyone has equal opportunities’. However, unequal conditions disable equal opportunities. I argue that at the heart of unequal conditions lies a fundamental misrecognition of the Homeless as fellow human beings with whom we share life. Therefore, I advocate for a radical – which is at the same time touching the bare minimum – recognition of the Homeless; one that rehumanises them rather than perpetuates their dehumanisation; one that focusses on what is the shared with the other in the difference from the other. In other words, the focus needs to shift from what makes us different from the Homeless to what we have in common with them. This commonness signifies our participation in being alive as humans. We can rehumanise the Homeless other by focussing on the shared human condition.
The Homeless are literally defined by what they have not – a home. They are without a home. Therefore, they are defined by their lack and thus by their ‘not’, which allows me to say that they ‘have’ a negative identity. This contrasts with minority groups that are defined positively – even though they are still positioned in a place of minority and inferiority. Think about women, people of colour, disabled people. They are defined by what they have and by what they share. When a society is structurally organised in a way that systemically discriminates these, among other, groups in a material (e.g. lower wage to name one) and immaterial (e.g. underestimation of competence to name another one) way, it enables them to collect as a group that shares that experience of oppression. The participants of these groups affirm their features in a positive way (as is explicitly the case for the PRIDE-movements) which enables the spirit of (collective) resistance: they stand strong(er) together. What makes the identity of these groups ‘positive’, is that they are defined by what they do have (even if it is determined by the superior oppressor). Nevertheless, it is a powerful source to invert the harm that is done to them and (re)claim their rights.
This ‘positive identity’ implies that they are at least recognised as a group that is oppressed. This is not the case for the Homeless. They are not considered to be oppressed because they do not participate in an identity that is positively affirmed by their mode of being (by the way they are); there is no position to rise up from because there is no positive, affirming shield to collect behind. People who identify as women gather behind their shared sense of womanhood, whereas there is no collective sense of identity performed among the Homeless. In the recent cost of living protests in Dublin, the participants are not Homeless people – even though their position is not disconnected from the unaffordable living costs to say the least – but the Cost of Living Coalition, which is supported by other groups, among which the Housing and Homeless Coalition. Nevertheless, who speaks here are not the Homeless themselves, but the recognised representatives who are not defined by their lack, but benefit from position which is recognised to be oppressed. These protests therefore do not voice the needs of the group arguably most affected by the cost-of-living crisis (the Homeless), but represents the needs of the people who are recognised to be affected (the socio-economic lower and underclass).
From this perspective, I dare to make the controversial statement that the oppressed minority groups are ‘privileged’ in the sense that they are at least recognised as oppressed. This may sound as a very poor consolation and it conflicts how we usually understand privilege and oppression. However, I hold it is necessary to think through this controversy in order to substantiate the claim that homelessness is not just a matter of socio(-economic) injustice, but concerns the human condition of everyone.
When we understand the relation between oppressed and oppressor in terms of positive identities (e.g. colour vs white; disable-bodied vs able-bodied; proletariat vs capitalist), we fundamentally miss the ones who do not inherently belong to any or multiple of those categories. This is not to say that there are no intersectional cases such as the disabled Homeless, but that the negative identity (Homelessness) usurps the positive oppressed identity (disability) like a black hole. I argue that the reason for this is that, because of the ‘empty’ identity, the Homeless are placed in the realm of the nonhuman. We fail to see them as humans in dire conditions, as people who exist (instead of live a potentially flourishing life) in extremely deprived circumstances. Think for instance about how one has more compassion for the dog that accompanies the Homeless, rather than the Homeless themselves. What is more, the presence of the Homeless somehow impose a discomfort upon us. Therefore, I strongly advocate for the radical recognition of the Homeless as humans instead of nonhumans.
We urgently need to recognise the Homeless as an oppressed minority. In order to do so, they need to be recognised as humans who are oppressed before anything else can come into place and be effective. When material goods (e.g. food, blankets) are distributed in order to help the Homeless to survive and exist, but their lives cannot flourish in those conditions. Even though this is extremely important life-saving work, this is often only done by (religious) charities and volunteers, who have close relations and affiliations with Homelessness as such and are therefore able to recognise them as people in need; because they, as people, touched Homelessness in some way or form, they are able to see the Human in the Homeless.
What makes my proposal of ‘radical recognition’ radical, is that it actually refers to the bare minimum. This means that we need to recognise the Homeless as humans; we need to see what we share with them. We need to see that we both participate in human life despite the difference we see from them. We first have to establish the commonness with them before we can recognise them as an oppressed group, because the latter implies that they hold ‘the privilege’ to be recognised as humans – humans who are discriminated and experience grave harms nevertheless. Through this focus on what we share (our being-aliveness-as-humans), the Homeless are brought into the realm of human people. This movement of rehumanisation (in contrast with their default dehumanised position) is essential for any other emancipatory attempts. Furthermore, this plea for the recognition of the bare minimum, benefits the relationship between recognised-oppressed and oppressor. Think for instance about how women’s rights (in practice) remain being women’s rights instead of human rights. The most obvious and recent example is the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn end the federal abortion laws. This decision legitimises the violation of women’s reproductive rights, therefore not recognising the violation of their human rights because it degrades women to women – instead of recognising women as humans. This is another topic, but it makes clear the urgency we face in recognising the humanity of our fellow citizens. Throughout this blog, I consistently use the capital letter when speaking about the Homeless. This symbolises the (literary) attempt to recognise them as a group with a name.
I deem the radical recognition, spiralling back to the mere sharedness of human life, therefore rehumanising the other in acknowledging what is shared despite the difference, as the necessary condition of equality before one can speak about equal opportunities, individual choice and responsibility. Before one can participate in a society, one needs to be recognised as a participant in the first place. We need to look what is behind being a participant and see what we share with whom is not considered to be a participant. We need to look for what is common in our difference.