In recent times, the widening gap between the rich and the poor has become the topic of intense conversation in various circles. Many people are wondering– in a world supposedly more advanced and progressive than ever, how is it that the welfare of the poor and income inequality is increasingly worse? Nowhere is this disparity manifested so starkly than in the issue of homelessness.
Charity is a core feature of the recently concluded Christmas festivities. For as long as I can remember (and I suspect this is true for you too) one of the main demographics that benefited from the outpour of charitable acts during Christmas celebrations are the homeless and underprivileged. Each year, during Christmas, we are urged to show kindness to these people by donating food baskets, blankets, warm clothing and as many other items as we can spare.
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Now this generous outpouring is sometimes in response to the severity of the Christmas weather on the homeless (either extremely hot, or extremely icy depending on the hemisphere) but regardless of our individual motives, these acts of kindness are highly commendable. The problem though is that like many acts of charity, our kindness in this regard is only palliative in nature and consequently will not get people off the streets long-term. And in most cases, it gives the illusion that we are actually doing something about homelessness when in reality we are not.
From London to New York, from Lagos to Tokyo, it seems that the more a city develops, the worse the homelessness problem gets. Perhaps homelessness is the manifestation of a flawed system which seeks to exclude the poor from cities, but let’s leave that discussion for another time.
Here in Nigeria, homelessness is not rife. This is surprising when you consider that mine is a country plagued by poverty and a litany of economic issues. Still we have a handle on the issue of homelessness and we have held firmly for as long as I know. Now this is not by some miracle of the Nigerian government. Rather it is a function of the inclusive design of the society because, the Nigerian community, advertently or otherwise, provides its members with two major ‘safety nets’ of sorts.
The first layer here is the safety net provided by one’s family and friends. A Nigerian who loses his or her home almost always has a relative or close friend with whom he or she can stay until they can get back on their feet. Where for some reason this solution fails, they relocate to the slums and shanty towns which ring most Nigerian cities and while there, live in relative “comfort” in shanties. These are the unspoken and unwritten solutions which the Nigerian society has come to accept as far as the issue of homelessness goes. They are very informal and inelegant, but these safety nets provide a predictability and stability that often enables certain poor Nigerians work for better fortunes while being kept off of the streets.
Now I understand that it might not be easy for all societies and countries to suddenly adopt an extended family care system, the latter can definitely be adopted and improved upon. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. In the existing order of things, after sometime, in a bid to preserve the facade of the beautiful city, these shanty towns are more often than not demolished by the government to expand the city for the rich, who they feel deserve the city.
When we advocate for individuals and cities go sustainable, adopt clean energy or plant more trees, we often fail to take into account that these sustainable practices could lead to the gentrification of these cities. This in turn raises the cost of living in these areas and thus pushes away those in the lower rungs of society’s economic ladder. Somehow, progress for cities also means a total exclusion of the poor. And no, this is not peculiar to developing countries. This is evidenced by the housing crisis in California, home to Silicon Valley, bastion of solar panels and sustainability. In 2018, there were 129,972 people on the streets on any given night statewide, accounting for nearly half of all homeless people in the US.
Typically, a myriad of startups have come up with ideas on how to solve the homelessness and housing problem, from tiny houses to 3D printing. However, all these are fire brigade solutions (solutions the homeless actually cannot afford) to a deeper problem. The truth is that the larger, developed cities (and practically all cities) for whatever reason, were never built to accommodate poor people. Not really. So squeezing them into backyards and disused parking lots only reinforces the notion that the poor and homeless are to be hidden and shoved out of sight, with no real effort being made to make things better for them.
A better approach would be to acknowledge that just as all the fingers of our hands aren’t shaped equally, the societies in which we live will always be a mix of equals and unequals. Put differently, there will always be those poorer than us; just like there will always be someone wealthier. We can’t wish this truth away; it also won’t disappear when we squeeze it into the shadows of our disused parking lots. With this realization, we can then design cities with them in mind. If humankind can send a man to the moon and back; surely, it’s not out of our reach to design systems that ensure that poor and disadvantaged people do not lose their dignity along with it.
I believe now is the perfect time to adopt a better approach as far as this issue goes. As the world moves into a new decade, new policies, structures are being put in place for the challenges of the future. The idea is to design these solutions to include the homeless from the get go. I understand that is extremely hard for these people to find places for themselves (or for our governments to find solutions) but we have to do better this decade. We can’t go on treating them like they have no right to be here. Like they ‘can’t sit with us’.
When the reality is that without certain safety nets cushioning our failures, you and I could have been homeless too.
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Feature image by Andreea Popa.