A Homeless Journey: From Neoliberal to Progressive

Donald Burnes, The Burnes Institute for Poverty Research Colorado Center on Law and Policy

Dateline: 9 am, January 2, 1989

My late wife, Alice, and I sat at our desks across from each other, ready to get to work on our book about homelessness. We had been talking about writing such a volume for months, if not years, and now, after a holiday week of fun and frivolity, it was time to get to work.

A major part of the impetus for the book idea came from our two and half years in leadership positions at the Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington, a direct service agency for those experiencing homelessness. As we sat there facing each other on the day after New Year’s, an anecdote from our time at SMGW kept running through my mind.

Butch was a regular at SMGW. He was a young alcoholic and drug addict experiencing homelessness who proudly showed me his syringe full of heroin on more than one occasion. One Friday, he turned up sober, and Alice persuaded him to go into the public 28-day recovery program that accepted admissions only on Mondays. However, in order to be admitted to the program, he had to spend the weekend in detox at the DC General Hospital, and in order to get into detox, he had to be drunk. So, with his singular interest in being admitted to the recovery program in mind, Alice and I loaded the sober Butch into our car, stopped at a liquor store, and bought him a pint of vodka and a chaser. Within roughly 30 seconds of his receiving the pint bottle, the entire contents were gone, and Butch had no interest in the chaser. Frankly, Alice and I felt lucky that this immediate consumption hadn’t killed Butch, but quite to the contrary, he opened the car window and, brandishing his empty bottle, yelled to anyone within hearing distance, “I got this from my Caucasian friends.” The admissions desk at detox was more than willing to admit Butch for a weekend stay, with the explicit understanding that he was there voluntarily, by his own choice. He then used his option to walk out of detox on Sunday, thus forfeiting his chance for admission to the 28-day program.

Butch’s experience, along with many others, prompted Alice and me to focus our thinking about homelessness on substance abuse and mental illness. Following my departure from SMGW, Alice and I decided to return to our policy-oriented roots. Confronted daily by columns in the Washington Post that on the left-hand side of the page examined homelessness and on the right-hand side described the explosion of drugs, we were emboldened to write a book about the homelessness issue. After four years of conducting background research, carefully reviewing over 100 demographic and epidemiological studies about homelessness, and writing draft after draft, we finally saw our efforts come to fruition in A Nation in Denial: The Truth About Homelessness, published in 1993.

Remember that the research on which our book was written occurred during the early days of national attention to homelessness. At the time, the various studies tended to focus on substance abuse and mental illness among those experiencing homelessness and on various ways to address those problems. The literature was replete with articles on both sides of the policy question, does substance abuse and/or mental illness cause homelessness or does homelessness cause substance abuse and/or mental illness? Efforts to provide shelters and facilities to address behavioral and mental health issues were at the fore, and there were only a handful of advocates on the liberal left who were calling for a major change in housing and economic policy; one even called for a global maximum wage in order to overcome economic inequality.

Consequently, the major focus of A Nation in Denial was on substance abuse and mental illness, and we called on people to start realizing that what we thought was the majority of those experiencing homelessness was a group of people who needed help to overcome addiction and mental illness. As our book became more widely known, we were periodically criticized for being neoliberals, for focusing too much attention on the personal problems of people, on “blaming the victim.” We shrugged off these criticisms as comments from people in denial.

Almost two decades later, after my wife had passed away and I had moved back to Denver, as part of my responsibility of being a scholar-in-residence at the University of Denver I offered to teach a course on homelessness.  I had been actively involved in the homelessness scene in Denver for almost 10 years at the time, working with a number of organizations that dealt with policy issues and visiting several direct service organizations; I learned a great deal from these experiences. I also realized I needed to brush up on my understanding of the literature on the topic. One of the first books I read as background in my effort to refresh my knowledge included a captivating chapter on structural inequality in the US by Bristow Hardin. I was flabbergasted by the data that Hardin used about wages, poverty, the distribution of wealth, and more. His chapter hit me between the eyes like a two-by-four, and I realized I really had to rethink my whole understanding of homelessness, its root causes, and how to address it.

Ruminating on the chapter, on my own experiences with homelessness in Denver, and on  material I was reading, I came to realize that the whole issue had to be viewed with a systems lens and that focusing on the personal issues confronting those without homes did nothing to address the underlying systemic problems that have worked to create the massive problem we have today. Because of more recent studies about homelessness, I also realized that most persons without homes were not alcoholics, drug addicts, or mentally ill; they were people in shelters, living in cars, or living doubled up with friends or relatives. This realization led me to understand that there are federal, state, and local policies across the country that underlie the root causes of homelessness; these include: the national failure to address the problem on a prevention basis; housing availability, such as lack of funding, redlining, gentrification, and landlord resistance; unemployment, underemployment, and the failure of wages to increase substantially; the marginalization of the labor union movement; the inadequacy of adequate health care; the continued marginalization of communities of color and those of differing sexual orientation; the availability of adequate transportation options for many in poor communities; and inadequate medical facilities; among others. In addition, the current movement to criminalize homelessness has only worsened the problem and has shifted the issue from restructuring systems to a law-and-order criminal justice approach that does nothing to address the underlying problems.

As a result of my review and refresh, my course took on a very different tone with very different course content than what it would have been 20 years earlier. I taught the course for several years, adding to the content each year. For the most part, as evidenced by course evaluations, the students, most of whom were upper-middle class white young women, found the course very helpful and valuable. Based on the term papers they produced, they clearly internalized my message about the systemic nature of the problem.

Two anecdotes from the several classes highlight my shift from the neoliberal focus on personal problems to a systemic approach.

In one class, one of the students owned her own house in Boulder. As I was explaining that 80 percent of the federal housing subsidies go to higher income homeowners through the mortgage interest deduction and deductions for state and local taxes, she cried out, “Oh, God. I’m part of the problem. I should sell my house immediately and go rent some place.” I tried to placate her, but she seemed adamant. I don’t know how she ended up in her housing situation.

Two years later, the best student I ever had who had read, on her own, A Nation in Denial, raised her hand and said, “Why did you have such a profound shift in your understanding of homelessness?” As I thought about her question, I realized how accurate her perception was, and I tried to answer her in what must have appeared to be a most stumbling way. The other students obviously enjoyed my discomfort. However, I had to admit that I really had shifted from a neoliberal approach to a much more progressive one, and I felt quite comfortable with my new and better understanding.

Over the course of the four years that I taught that course, I often wondered how I could have swallowed the Kool-Aid about the ubiquitous nature of substance abuse and mental illness among those experiencing homelessness. Given my current understanding of the issues, it seems almost blasphemous to focus on the personal characteristics of individuals without homes. And then I realize that many Americans, probably even most of them, consider those experiencing homelessness the unworthy poor, there precisely because of those personal characteristics. Maybe every American should have to teach a course on homelessness, work in the field for several years, and review the growing literature on the systemic issues that underlie this national disgrace.

My work in Denver and my teaching experience led me develop an organization that was focused on policy research and evaluation on issues related to homelessness. It was a separate nonprofit for several years and then a center on homelessness and poverty at the University of Denver for three years. Most recently, I was given the golden opportunity to expand poverty and homelessness action research in support of advocacy, legislation, and litigation at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a wonderful home for my systems approach. This will be the perfect ending for my journey, from neoliberal to progressive in over thirty years.

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