An article in today’s Los Angeles Times – “Getting People off the Streets” by Martha Groves – details Santa Monica’s efforts to accommodate its “homeless” population. While I’m sure it’s well intentioned, the primary focus of Santa Monica’s initiative seems to be municipal beautification. Homeless people burden city resources and jeopardize the well-being of local merchants. Besides that, they’re unsightly.
As a measure of the extent of Santa Monica’s misdirection, statistics show that 85% of the time “being homeless” is a lifestyle outcome either selected voluntarily or by force of circumstance (typically, for economic reasons). The remaining 15% of the homeless population is mentally ill. Folsom et al. (2005) estimated that 15% of patients treated for severe mental illness in San Diego County are homeless, a higher percentage than suggested in previous studies (University of California – San Diego, 2005). There is no reason to believe Santa Monica is any different.
Santa Monica should be allocating its resources to the mentally-ill homeless, not the permanent or transient homeless. The mentally-ill homeless require public solicitude in order to survive. While their circumstances may be unfortunate, the non-mentally-ill homeless population will achieve equilibrium either by remaining homeless or by developing some other viable way to take care of basic personal needs (such as shelter).
The difficulties of being actually homeless on the streets of Santa Monica implicate a broader problem. There is a sense in which we all are homeless. The philosopher Martin Heidegger identified this condition as “Unheimlichkeit.” Unheimlichkeit’s source is “thrown-ness,” the anxiety we experience in the face of the inevitable prospect of dying and the essentially arbitrary nature of human culture and institutions. It is a sense of estrangement (Colonello, 1989). It is disruptive because it “entails a displacement or disruption” of one’s “smooth unreflective functioning in the world” (MacAvoy, 2001). One “feels fundamentally unsettled, that is, senses that human beings can never be at home in the world” (Dreyfus, 1991) (emphasis in original). Hubert Dreyfus is a leading Heidegger interpreter. Elsewhere he states:
“The things that once evoked commitment – gods, heroes, the God-man, the acts of great statesmen, the words of great thinkers – have lost their authority. As a result, individuals feel isolated and alienated. They feel that their lives have no meaning because the public world contains no guidelines. … The only way to have a meaningful life in the present age, then, is to let your involvement become definitive of reality for you, and what is definitive of reality for you is not something that is in any way provisional – although it certainly is vulnerable” (Dreyfus, 2008).
Social networking phenomena such as Twitter and GPS positioning introduce a new concept of “place” that mitigate against Unheimlichkeit. If one can be everywhere at once and accessible to anyone, then one never can be truly “homeless.” The juxtaposition of Twitter and Unhemlichkeit suggests that Santa Monica might be able to reduce its homeless population by giving each person an iPhone. Then they could Twitter away, reducing their existential burden. I’m sure their “tweets” would be more interesting than, say, those of bored and redundant office workers.
Colonnello, P. (1999). “Homelessness as Heimatlosigkeit?,” The Ethics of Homelessness – Philosophical Perspectives, ed. G. Abbarno (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999) 41 – 54: 41.
Dreyfus, H. (1991). Being-in-the-World. Boston, MA: MIT University Press.
Dreyfus, H. (2008). “Heidegger on the Connection between Nihilism, Art, Technology and Politics.” Retrieved February 26, 2009 from UC Berkeley Web site.
Folsom, D., Hawthorne, W., Lindamer, L., Gilmer, T., Bailey, A., Golshan, S. et al. (2005, February). Prevalence and Risk Factors for Homelessness and Utilization of Mental Health Services Among 10,340 Patients With Serious Mental Illness in a Large Public Mental Health System. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(2), 370 – 376.
MacAvoy, L. (2001). “Overturning Cartesianism and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Rethinking Dreyfus on Heidegger,” Inquiry, 2001: 44, 455 – 480: 461.
University Of California – San Diego (2005, Feb. 3). More Homeless Mentally Ill Than Expected According To UCSD Study: Interventions Urged. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 26, 2009 from UCSD Web site.