Enlightened Capitalism

Essays about how to harness people's natural desire to create wealth and improve their quality of life to solve global problems such as war and poverty.

Friday, June 24, 2005


I have been thinking a lot lately about the word "homeless".

At first blush, it looks like it means "doesn't have a home". "Having," in this case, clearly doesn't refer just to ownership, but simply the right to be there. You aren't homeless when you are renting, or staying with your parents.

"Home" refers to something habitable. We might go further and require that it be enclosed from the weather, with adequate ventilation and heating/cooling, and access to a bathroom or latrine. But does that mean if a window doesn't close or there's a hole in the roof or if the heater is broken, the person living there is homeless? I don't think so.

In most cities there are building and safety codes which define habitability, so in those places we could raise the bar and say a home must comply with local ordinances. Except that would make just about everyone homeless, because so few structures actually comply with all the laws.

Are people in jail homeless? They do have the right to be inside in the jail, and it does seem to qualify as a home.

Is a camper van a home? I suppose the idea of home also refers to the spot on the earth where the structure sits. So if you have the right to park in a particular spot, and you park your camper van there, then it could be a home. Could a blimp be a home? People live on ships in the ocean, but if they are not allowed to dock, then maybe they are homeless too.

At the time I got divorced, I owned five houses but didn't have the right to live in any of them. I slept at the office under my desk for two years (it was fun, actually -- they had a great gym with showers and lockers. I just had to move my car each morning to keep up appearances.) Was I homeless then?

If they had kicked me out of the office, I had other options. I could have stayed with my parents, or any number of relatives or friends. I could have stayed in a hotel. Does having enough money for a hotel automatically disqualify you from being homeless? Because I might have chosen to sleep in a park or on the beach, to save money, rather than stay in a hotel. Would I be choosing homelessness then, or would I merely be a homeful person choosing to sleep outside?

When I travel I never like to book a hotel in advance, I always like to check the place out first and then choose where to stay. Sometimes this entails unexpected adventures and little sleep, like when my friend and I tried to stay in Phoenix and ended up practically in Flagstaff before we found a room, or when we tried to stay in Venice (or Padua? or Verona? or...) and ended up sleeping on the train all the way to Milan where we finally found a room.

Note that everywhere I go, people I've met have offered to let me stay with them. On a flight to Los Angeles I met a woman who let me stay with her family in Kiel. On my way to Kiel I met people who let me stay with them in Heidelberg. On my way back to San Francisco I met a family who invited me to stay with them in Melbourne. On a flight to London I sat next to a woman who let me stay at her apartment in New York (no, we didn't do anything :). I have been offered free room & board by friendly people in hundreds of cities.

When we talk about the homeless, we aren't talking about people in my situation, we are talking about people who seem to have no choice but sleep outside, generally illegally. They have no money, and no one will let them stay over. So it seems like a good idea to donate space and give them a clean safe place to sleep, a shower, and a hot meal.

We don't want to be a crutch for these people or keep them down. So we give them job counselling and drug rehab. For some it works, and they get back on their feet. For many others it doesn't work, and they remain "homeless". One step we can take toward solving this is to realise that people do have a choice. Even "homeless" is a choice. Friends of mine have made $40/hr begging, and that is enough to rent a motel room every night and buy new clothes every day, or even buy a house, for that matter. I have helped dozens of people with no credit and no money buy houses. And they didn't really need my help -- they just needed to know it was possible and choose it.

When you look at how easy it was for me to find places to stay, it's clear the problem is not really lack of places to stay. Certain attitudes & behaviors work and lead to peace and prosperity and happiness, and certain other attitudes & behaviors don't work and lead to poverty and illness and violence. The problem is that for a certain category of people we have failed to adequately encourage the former attitudes & behaviors and discourage the latter.

And the big question is do we care. See, if we care about these people, then we will take care of them. Millions of dollars are spent each year on shots and treats and flea collars for cats and dogs. Pet lovers go to great lengths to make sure their pets are happy. Scientists study the pets in detail to see what works and what doesn't, because they know the pet lovers will pay for products that keep their pets safe and healthy. I won't even mention what people spend on their cars.

The good news is, if we want to make a world that works for EVERYONE, we can. Let's start doing that! Tell your representatives and the media and the charitable foundations that you want them to sponsor studies about what really works to encourage prosperous choices and improve lives, and tell them you want to see results.

Thanks. :)


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