Posted by James Dezellem on Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Recently I had a chance to meet up with two very good friends of mine in Hawaii. One of those friends is working every week to end the rampant homelessness, the other friend is on the brink of homelessness himself who just got into a shelter. Buried deep in the above photo of the panorama of Honolulu sits and strolls about 7,000 homeless people.  Picking up a rental car, we watched a woman passionately talk to her invisible dog and tents lined many streets as we drove by. The governor of Hawaii recently declared the homelessness problem in Hawaii a “State of Emergency”. My cousin Andrew, who serves the homeless with The Salvation Army in Hawaii, told me that business leaders, churches, non-profits and government officials are stumped with how to solve the problem.
As someone who worked with homeless people every week for 4 years in Portland, I’ve been quite stumped myself. The same people would come back week after week. Often kind, smart people with bad habits and emotional hurt. Some had clear psychological problems, others substance addictions and others just seemed to enjoy life outdoors (usually). For these people, there were barriers just too high to get into a place of their own.
I have some proposed solutions to the homelessness problem that I’d like to be shared and implemented. The problem is, change hurts. It’s scary and unpopular, especially for those sitting comfortably with a job and home. But, let’s consider some steps we can take.
1. End the minimum wage. You might be thinking I’m crazy right about now. Surely, as someone who genuinely cares about the poor I would want their wages higher?!? Yes, I do. If I could write on paper to make a law making everyone comfortable and healthy, I’d probably do it. I’d probably write a law with a $50 or $100 minimum wage so people could live really well. One of the main problems with a minimum wage is that it creates unemployment. If a special needs adult, teenager out of high school, an alcoholic with bad work history, or someone wanting to try working in a new field wants a job, they are worth less to an employer than a healthy, educated adult. Someone with lesser skills should have the bargaining chip of price. They (without a minimum wage) can agree to work for a low wage to prove their worth. Then they can climb the wage ladder, when employers compete to have this person as their increasingly valuable employee. If a special needs person puts out $9/hr in value to the bottom line to a company and the minimum wage is $12/hr, the company is committing suicide by making this a hiring practice. They WILL NOT generally get hired. They will be unemployed. Unemployment leads to homelessness, depression, substance abuse and a spiral of hopelessness.

2. End occupational licensing. Did you know that in some states you need an expensive and time consuming state license for the following jobs: manicurist, librarian, locksmith, dry cleaner, auctioneer, fruit ripener, Christmas tree vendor, cab driver, cat groomer, masseuse, kick boxer… and mortician? Why do these laws exist? Well, if you currently have a job in the one in three careers with state mandated occupational licensing, it’s nice to have less people competing for your job. Remember the law of supply and demand from Econ101? If the supply can be suppressed (aka keeping homeless and poor from cutting your hair), the price (and profit!) will increase. Homeless people are struggling! Do you think they’re in a place financially and organizationally to jump through all these complex and expensive regulatory hoops? A study has shown that Hawaii has the biggest licencing hurdles to employment.

3. Stop zoning the poor into homelessness. By definition, the poor don’t have a home. They don’t have property or housing of their own. Why? Most homeless people would love to have property of their own, but onerous laws and high prices keep people from doing so. Why can’t they find cheap places to live? Certainly there are people who want to rent out parts of their property or sell small chunks of land or tiny homes. This LA musician built $1,200 tiny houses for the homeless, then the city seized them. When we mandate minimum sizes of housing and restrict property owners’ rights to build more shelters on their own property, it leaves only expensive properties. The homeless need homes, cheap ones. We need to let builders, charities and property owners help the poor by taking away their restrictions.

4. Take away the carrot.  I’ll first start a story. I once lost my indoor cat Stella. (Yes, we’re protective) She was out all night. I recruited a neighbor kid to help me find her. We searched for hours. I ended up saying a prayer and leaving my door open with a bowl of food out. Sure enough, she was hungry enough to come looking for that food and we got her inside.  I tell this story to illustrate that hunger drives us. We, as humans, want stuff. We want good food, comfortable housing, quick transportation and more.  The reason why most of us get out of bed and go to work is to earn money to buy the things we want. If we already had those things, we wouldn’t be productive, healthy people. A friend of mine who has worked with the homeless for years tells me that the homeless population she works with is receiving about $30,000 in government benefits a year. That includes better health insurance than I’ve ever been able to afford, housing in the most expensive parts of downtown Portland, food stamps and more. How can we get people to start the hard process of finding and keeping employment when they have to earn $30,000 just to break even with what they’re getting handed to them already.  The least popular part of my plan to end homelessness is to end all government (taxpayer) welfare. Bureaucrats far away from our communities don’t know how to spend our money responsibly. They often don’t know the difference of deadbeats versus down and outs.  We need to wisely take away carrots, then voluntarily and wisely give hand-ups rather than handouts to people that really need it.
5. Love the poor. There are many more barriers we can destruct on a local and national level to all but eliminate homelessness, but at the end of the day, those steps probably won’t be taken. And even if we eliminate every legal and financial barrier employment, food, housing, etc., there will always be people who need a hand up. We need to surround these people with love and tangible help. Job training, life coaching, financial management skills and family counseling. Supporting organizations like My Fathers House, which gives people more than a place to stay but also train them how to live a healthy life. I also highly recommend the book Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor.
Ultimately, we can take practical steps to end homelessness but for whole life transformation to happen, we need God to change lives. We need His spirit and His power to live with people and show the way to a healthy, vibrant life.
Further learning:
  • I was privileged to be at this fantastic talk on the minimum wage by economist Walter Block.
  • Occupational licensing is a scam.
  • Zoning laws hurt businesses and therefore the people they hire and serve.
  • Welfare laws trap rather than free.
  • How the idea of diverse groups of people on mission to small people groups in their communities tangibly changes lives in the Salvation Army and through the SOMA family of churches.