Finland has a great fix for homelessness: if the authorities find someone living on the street they give them a house to live in. Free of charge.
Finland is a high-functioning welfare state, near the Arctic, with a stable population of five million and a GDP per capita of $50,000 per annum. We, unfortunately, face very different circumstances, and dilemmas.
Take Alex A, a man in need. A refugee from war-torn Sudan, he has been living in Cape Town for some time, but in very precarious circumstances. He is apparently smart, industrious and civic-minded to a fault, but as things stand he has no reliable means of support and no fixed abode. I have never met Alex, but his plight has been brought to my attention courtesy of a Facebook post by a friend of mine. The post presents like a litmus test for basic decency and neighbourliness.
My friend, who brings to mind Major Barbara in George Bernard Shaw’s eponymous play, devotes her daytime labours to improving the living conditions of Alex and the other 10,000 homeless people in our city, Cape Town. It’s wonderful work, she deserves a medal — but it also throws up some really uncomfortable questions. Helping in this way is an act of genuine virtue, but that’s not to say that it’s either uncomplicated or unalloyed. Especially not in the case of “Barbara”, who appears to spend much of her leisure time savaging those who have a less charitable view of homelessness than hers.
What makes Alex’s case somewhat distinctive is, of course, the fact that he is not a born-or-bred South African. That does not mean that he is undeserving of our sympathy, or assistance, but it does have two implications.
First, it means that the apartheid guilt theme cannot be honestly raised (though there’s also colonial guilt more generally, that does need to be factored into any moral calculus).
And second, it brings up the issue of precedence or prioritisation. I have never known where to draw the line on this subject, but it seems unarguable that equally qualified and equally deserving locals should get some kind of preference when it comes to the allocation of scarce socioeconomic goods. If I were one of the 70% of young citizens who is without work, I think I would be hard-pressed to look with equanimity on the appointment of a “gastarbeiter” in my stead.
I have not seen polling data on the attitudes of unemployed South Africans regarding this matter. Common sense suggests though that there has to be a high level of resentment or disquiet, at least — and a similar inference can be made regarding the issue of homeowners and the homeless.
I have done some informal canvassing myself, and the overwhelming majority of those in the propertied classes are decidedly uncomfortable about the prospect (or, increasingly, the reality) of people sleeping rough in their neighbourhoods. Most are (or affect to be) concerned about the plight of these unfortunates, but it does appear that this kind of nimbyism is a near-universal reflex (or affliction).
Nimby, for those who don’t do American, is an acronym for not-in-my-back-yard. People like Barbara are wont to attribute the worst motives to those who go vocal on the subject of neighbourhood “standards and safety”, but that is more than a little unfair. Of course, it’s likely that there are inveterate racists among them, and misanthropes, but in most cases (surely?) these are just regular human beings manifesting basic concerns about the wellbeing of themselves and their immediates. And their property values, though that’s not too shameful either.
Shaw (a lifelong progressive crusader) created a foil for his Salvation Army character in the form of Barbara’s father, an industrialist. Andrew Undershaft was an arms manufacturer, no less, but the beauty of the drama lay in the fact that he had lots of people in his employ and provided them all with decent housing and a range of other amenities.
The Nobel-winning playwright didn’t browbeat his audience, one way or the other; instead he tried to show the complexity of then (1905) modern life, with all the difficult moral quandaries it threw up.
The latter-day Barbara — my friend — has no time for such subtleties or finesses. She has the nervous suburbanites down as heartless sybarites, utterly indifferent to the suffering of the unfortunates in their midst. Casting them in this way is galvanising — it feeds the addiction to badness abroad — but it’s terrible for the collective psyche. And for investment. And for progress.
On the subject of progress, Shaw is relevant again in that although he retained a lifelong affection for socialism, he was not a revolutionary, but rather an incrementalist or gradualist. Were he reconstituted today (he died in 1950) he would rail against the reign of the tech plutocrats, but he would not be surprised, or dismayed, by the failure of the grand experiments in state-controlled egalitarianism. I’m pretty sure that he would have agreed with the idea that “progressive taxation is the thinking woman’s alternative to Marxism” — and that the solution for the homelessness challenge, specifically, would involve a special impost on the most affluent to enable the building of more and better shelters. Combined with sensitive law enforcement.
That, mind you, would only mitigate the problem rather than cure it. First because, notoriously, there are many among the homeless who prefer the freedom of the street to the restrictions of welfare dormitories.
And second, because temperate, well-resourced cities like Cape Town are bound to continue to draw in migrants. Especially in a country (and on a continent) featuring high birth rates, widespread poverty and easy migration.
It’s sobering to look at homelessness figures from around the world. There are 50,000 people thus classifiable in Los Angeles and 70,000 in New York (of 550,000 total in the US). Those numbers are dwarfed though by the data from China (two million), Egypt (12 million) and Nigeria (a nigh unbelievable 24 million) (figures per Wikipedia).
Such comparisons do not justify indifference, let alone maltreatment, but they do give a sense of the intractability and potential scale of the problem. Thus while I’m not at all sure about the right solution, I am pretty sure that the Major Barbaras of the world are both a blessing and a scourge. A blessing for their kind ministrations to the hapless indigent and a scourge for their bitter fulminations against the insecure affluent.