Photo by Karoly Lorentey
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”
Whether Benjamin Franklin said it or Albert Einstein, I’ve always liked this quote. It regularly inspires and pushes me to approach an idea or problem in my own life differently.
When it comes to broader societal problems, the well-known quote also leads me to this conclusion: We live in a country that functions within primarily insane power structures.
For the most part, people are OK with that because they feel safer when their lives are embedded in this pattern. They’d rather approach problems the same way over and over again and feel like at least someone’s attempting to help, rather than trying something completely different—something that might actually help. When you try a different approach, after all, anything could happen. You’re unleashing the unknown.
While all those people, if asked, would say they’re perfectly sane, this endless pattern makes ME crazy.
Homelessness is changing—shouldn’t our perspective & solutions change, too?
Take, for instance, the problem of homelessness. I won’t even try to address the many reasons people end up being homeless. What I want to talk about here is this very basic problem: An increasing number of men, women and children have no place to sleep come nightfall. Even in nice, small college towns like mine.
My friend, Jesse, has a heart for all those people. He believes in new approaches to problems, too. Jesse recently became aware of the growing number of tent communities popping up around the country—particularly Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon—and decided that sleeping in a tent, here in Champaign, was a good way to go. Before he knew it, others were interested in joining him, and a community called Safe Haven organically formed. (You can read more about it in a series at the online magazine Smile Politely, here and here.)
What I really like about this approach is that it’s different. It’s not just about throwing more money at the problem, or figuring out how to cram more people into shelters. It’s an affordable, simple, sustainable alternative to park benches and railroad viaducts. Safe Haven and other tent communities incorporate rules and self-governing, they offer a true sense of community, and they treat the homeless people with respect.
But there’s been a lot of resistance to the tent community—from the police, the city council, some neighbors and even the local newspaper, who for some reason decided to take a clearly negative stance. From all of the information I’ve gathered, both first-hand and via various articles I’ve read, the complaints are rooted in misinformation and misunderstanding.
Getting passionate about the solutions, not just the problems
I want to be clear: I’m not an expert in the variety of issues surrounding homelessness. I’ve never been a cop, a city council person, or a neighbor to a tent community.
I will say this, though: I’m tired of people who do nothing to address problems suddenly becoming vocal when they want to voice complaints.
I’m tired of people who don’t do their research, and really don’t know what they’re talking about, spouting off their opinions in letters to the editor and online forums (like the people who say “There are lots of shelters, if they don’t choose to stay in them that’s their own problem.”).
I’m tired of people wanting to sweep societal problems under the rug. The pervading “what-we-can’t-see-doesn’t-exist” attitude is both naive and dangerous. Homeless people camp out in our cities every night whether we see them or not—without a sense of community or self-governing or safety. It’s when they do something organized and visible that people suddenly get all worked up.
I’m tired of people only caring about themselves—whether it’s their tax dollars or how the appearance of their community reflects on them—and not having enough compassion to sit down and problem-solve together. It’s one thing to not be a fan of a proposed solution. It’s another thing to express your distaste without offering any potentially better solutions.
I realize not everyone is going to love the same approach. And everyone isn’t going to devote loads of personal time and money to solving broad societal problems like homelessness.
But unless people are willing to truly examine the big picture—to talk to people who are homeless and those who work every day to help them, and to see first-hand how quickly their viable options are exhausted—perhaps they should just sit quietly inside their safe homes, with their full refrigerators and big TVs, and keep their mouths shut.