Homelessness and the Environment: Squatting on the Edge of a Planet in Crisis

Person sleeping

Homelessness and the environment are two issues not usually discussed together unless one is enumerating pressing problems of our times. Yet homeless individuals are at the nexus of a number of environmental issues. For example, homeless people are perhaps the most visible face of recycling, the familiar urban silhouettes pushing large carts overflowing with cans illustrating the wealth that we throw out in our trash. A survey conducted in Los Angeles in the year 2000 estimated that 75% of the homeless in LA depended on the income they received from recycling, although in an ironic move, some private individuals working with recyclers to keep curbside "thieves" from profiting from their trash.

If someone lives in an area with services and is savvy (or cognizant) enough to make use of them, it is possible to dine on surplus food from soup kitchens and food pantries and to clothe oneself more or less to meet the weather in second-hand garments. Our throwaway society does mean that there are some who have learned to live in a close but imperfect symbiosis with the majority who generate the waste. Ironically, the two halves of society, walking the same streets but not existing in the same plane, are much more closely connected than either would probably admit. An MIT study found that homeless people in the US have a high carbon footprint than the world average simply because they exist in a place whose many services consume more than its share of resources.

On the flip side, many living without fixed residences exist without the benefit of appropriate sanitation, plumbing, or shelter. When I was a social worker serving many homeless and formerly homeless people in New York City, I learned that to be homeless is to never exist far from an awareness of the environment. Whether they chose to brave the elements and sleep outside or brave their peers and stay at a shelter, you have to do something else during the day. The often exhausting effort to keep moving from place to place often means being exposed to all kinds of weather because you have no right to stay still.

In this economic climate the line between our population's most vulnerable and the rest of us is blurring a little bit. Food pantries are serving more people: "We are actually serving families that didn't need us before. Some of them were actual donors and now they're on the other side," said food bank supervisor Griselda Romero in Kern County, California.  The ranks of the homeless are swelling, putting pressure on shelters. Samaritan House, which serves meals in San Mateo and runs a shelter in South San Francisco, as of last month had seen a 53% increase in requests for food and a 300 percent increase in requests for emergency rental assistance from people who have been laid off or have had trouble getting enough work hours to pay the rent. The LA Times published a useful guide to assist the newly poor in navigating local services.

Person sleeping

Ironically, the economic downturn may be benefiting some homeless people in Florida, where they may be encouraged to live in foreclosed housesThe crisis has also brought down the market for recyclables, however, ultimately threatening this important source of income.

If homeless people are shaped by the same economic and environmental forces that concern the rest of us, then they also stand to benefit by solutions like green design (for homeless shelters) , green energy/ green jobs, and urban gardens.

While some of the trends in mainstream culture may seem to be veering closer to those who live on the outskirts of culture, it's important to remember that when those of us that have enough simplify, it's not the same as the enforced simplification of living as a homeless person. Living in a tent on purpose is not the same as living under a bridge because you have to. Ideally, of course, rather than redirecting our surplus clothing or food to shelters we should find a way to prevent homelessness and poverty altogether. In the meantime, monetary donations are down and the need is up, so if you have any in-kind donations (or money) for the food banks or shelters in your area, now is a great time to share.

Want to learn more about homelessness? There are a lot of homeless bloggers out there. Two other good resources are the blog from Michaelann Land and the LA Homeless Blog.

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