Collective Responsibility and Homelessness: Integrating individual and shared responsibility

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William Johnston, S.J., one of the twentieth century’s mystical theologians, and who I once met, wrote the following in his book entitled: Christian Mysticism:

“The inward journey can be described as a journey into the depths of one’s being, a journey to the true self and through the true self to God, who is at the center. Down, down, I go through alternate layers of light and darkness, meeting all the slimy monsters and frightening demons that inhabit the subliminal world. And if I progress far enough, I meet the monsters of the human race. I meet the root causes of war, oppression, torture, hunger, terrorism. I meet hatred, despair, injustice, atheism, darkness, I meet archetypal evil. And, horror of horrors, I meet it in myself. In myself you say, how can that be? How can I be responsible for war, hunger, homelessness, hatred and despair? Alas, we our all responsible. For we all share in the collective acts of the human family. We are not isolated individuals but members of a living and conscious body.”

Constant reflection on this passage, propelled my journey into the experience of collective responsibility as a moral obligation. I pondered and reflected on the latter, even though the sociologist Max Weber, whose writings were central in shaping my dissertation, argued that collective responsibility makes “no sense both because we cannot isolate genuinely collective actions, as distinct from identical actions of many persons, and because groups, unlike the individuals who belong to them, cannot think as groups or formulate intentions of the kind normally thought to be necessary to actions.”

I pressed on in my journey and came across something that the psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote in his book entitled The Integration of Personality,

“When the fate of Europe carried it into a four years’ war of stupendous horror — a war that no one wanted — hardly anyone asked who had caused the war and its continuation. The answer would have been unwelcomed — it was I — your I and mine.”

As I continued to grapple with the experience of collective responsibility, I was reminded of the following lyrics that were sung by Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame:

“I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me.”

Anything that would reference my favorite Christian Social Reformer, Bobby Kennedy, let alone his assassination and the assassination of his older brother President John F. Kennedy, catches my attention. The lyrics made reference to collective responsibility in my opinion, and I figured if Mick Jagger could get the concept of collective responsibility, then certainly could I.

My journey began taking place in the 1990s at a time when I was starting to become deeply involved in the issues that related to homelessness. Through my reflections I began to incorporate collective responsibility and homelessness into my life, which inevitably included integrating both individual and shared responsibility.

What I learned over the years about individual and shared responsibility can be best expressed within a context that is a common experience to most, if not all, of us. The context is panhandling. Encountering persons who experience homelessness and who panhandle has become a nearly everyday experience for many of us.

Within this context, individual responsibility is often demonstrated when someone is contemplating whether or not to give something to the person panhandling. Such contemplation often focuses on whether to give money or not. One alternative is to give food instead of cash. Whatever the choice, the preferred option usually stems from the feeling that something needs to be given to the person panhandling out of some sense of moral obligation.

Within this context, shared responsibility can also be demonstrated. Many, among those who panhandle, are persons who are also chronically homeless. They have been on the streets for more than a year and have some kind of disabling condition that makes it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to obtain and maintain permanent housing.

During the past 30 years, many individual and collective actions have contributed to chronic homelessness. Homeless service providers carved out the subpopulation of persons they wanted to help—families, single women or men, youth, substance users, mentally ill, etc. They also established the rules and related criteria to receive help which often included entering a program that only accepts persons based on preconditions, or one gender and not the opposite gender of a spouse or intimate partner. Receiving help also meant to immediately go into substance use recovery and agree to be medication compliant if mentally ill. In some cases, one’s religious faith prevented access to a program if one’s faith did not match the faith of the organization operating the program.

Those homeless persons who were able to meet specific criteria and adhere to the rules often exited homelessness. Those that did not were left to live on the streets. The latter includes persons that also entered a program but that were also discharged from the program for a variety of reasons. These persons were left to languish on the streets over the years and have become some of the most visible and hardest to help of all homeless persons. These are the persons that we are often moved to help, but when we encounter them we also feel the powerlessness of individual responsibility. Perhaps our feelings are also stemming from our deep down held suspicions that these persons’ acts of individual responsibility have likely contributed to their state of chronic homelessness.

Helping chronically homeless persons needs to be a collective responsibility. If not, we are left only with individual responsibility. Too many of us know that giving food and/or cash to persons who panhandle has had little impact in terms of helping people exit their state of homelessness.

Collective responsibility involves engaging homeless persons within other social settings before they become chronically homeless or in programs that lower barriers in order for them to transition to permanent housing. One such social setting is within programs where someone can contribute means or assets towards a wide-range of resources from public and private sources that have been leveraged to end homelessness. Helping someone who has taken steps towards ending their homelessness is quite different from helping someone who has not yet taken such steps.

Another social setting is within permanent housing. It is not easy for homeless persons to obtain permanent housing with bad credit and a spotty employment history. Someone who is a property owner could make the choice to help a person exiting homelessness knowing this person is likely a higher risk tenant. Also, someone who knows property owners could help them make a choice to help a higher risk tenant.

Helping someone within a permanent housing social setting can also involve helping the person maintain the housing whether or not the housing unit is owned by you or someone you know. Helping the person maintain the housing often involves providing furniture and smaller household items. It may also involve helping the person gain a sense of community by becoming an active participant in a congregation and other group settings often found operating in community centers.

Thus, integrating individual and shared responsibility involves going beyond feelings and experiences of one-on-one encounters with homeless persons. Whether you give to a person panhandling or not is one thing, doing nothing afterwards is another thing.

The other day my spouse, Sofia, and I decided to walk down the street to get dinner. As we walked about a mile and a half we encountered about a dozen persons who were homeless. One was physically disabled and slowly wobbled down the street carrying three bags filled with empty cans, two women who were homeless were arguing about who had the right to panhandle on the corner while a homeless man watched, and a young woman seemingly homeless was throwing-up along the curb while her companion watched. The others that we saw were lingering in the shadows.

My feelings of helplessness and hopelessness lingered through the rest of the evening even though I reminded myself of all the ways we support the efforts of people exiting homelessness, and those that are helping them, in other social settings. I was also reminded of the need to double-down and significantly increase such support, services, and resources. I was reminded of the need to further my integrative experience of individual and shared responsibility. I have come to realize that integrating individual and shared collective responsibility is a life-long experience that furthers a life-long journey of moral responsibility that I am also learning to welcome readily. May you be encouraged to start or further the integration of your own individual responsibility with collective responsibility as well.

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