My Ellulian Moment: Dialectical Challenges of Homelessness, and the Ends and Means of Addressing It.

If you have read or listened to me speak over the past 3-plus years, you know that a significant influence in my life is the French sociologist and jurist Jacques Ellul.  Ellul, who died in the 1980s was a prolific writer best known for his writing on technique, propaganda, money, and ethics. He was a Marxist Christian who embraced the contradictions between the two, believing that dialectic tension should not lead to “synthesis” but should remain as what it is: a tension. But that tension could and should form our approach to the world because it recognizes the complexity of the world and our approaches to dealing with it.*89-79-PB

In Ellul’s writing on technique, he frequently dealt with the tension that technique was both a normal part of human advancement as well as a power that had enslaved humanity in a pernicious search for “the one best way,” or the most efficient means to achieve something.  The problem, for Ellul, is that humanity’s quest for the one best way left us enamored with means but bereft of a clear sense of where we are headed (the ends).

He spoke of our deployment of prodigious means which enable us to hurtle full speed towards… nowhere.

An Uncomfortable Dialectic

I have returned to Ellul over and over in these times and pondered his thought and what it means for the problem of homelessness in our community.  First, I know any discussion of homelessness is replete with contradictory statements–I make them myself.  I will say that homelessness is not just about finding housing for people, even while I work to provide housing. I will say we must provide a “housing first” solution for people, even as I know many will not avail themselves of that housing. I will state we must solve the challenge of homelessness even as I acknowledge that we cannot end it.

These real tensions send a message to those with whom I speak that I really don’t have a clue about what is going on, that I lack a way forward, or that the problem is simply too big for a City the size of ours to deal with. At the limit, some view my statements on the challenges of and plans for dealing with homelessness as contradictory, inconsistent and even dishonest.

But, like Ellul, I have moved towards the conviction that these tensions cannot be resolved.  There is no synthesis to be found.  We must live with the contradictions and seek a way through them to change our current reality.

I understand these contradictions/tensions to be a function not only of the complexity of the problem itself but because the word “homeless” \does not lend itself to a consistent definition or description.  The tensions around homelessness exist because we have chosen to define a syndrome as a simple and simplistic identifiable outcome–people living without permanent shelter, a fixed address, or a known place to raise their heads.

The tension abounds because this “thing” is actually many things at once and so one can say almost anything about homelessness and it is probably true in at least one case.

But drawing on Ellul, I am choosing to remain within the tensions to better, more honestly, deal with the complexity, the multiple causes, the difficult results, the uncertain outcomes of our efforts to deal with it.

The “Ends” of our Efforts Related to Homelessness

Over the past few months–as discussions of programs to deal with the challenges of homelessness have spiked in our community, due to a proposal to use taxation as a means to fund services–I have heard many “proposals” about what the ends of our efforts should be.

These have run the gamut from providing “tiny homes” for all homeless people to doing what is necessary to make Davis inhospitable for anyone who is homeless.  The latter set of “recommendations” has been extremely troubling for me, both because dozens have written to me (often in anger) to suggest it, but also because it so profoundly dehumanizes the people who find themselves in this situation.

Letters in this vein often begin or end with some variation on “I am a tax paying citizen, why do you care more about someone who does not pay taxes (not demonstrably true), than you care about me.”  These letters go on to demand that I “take action” against these people but almost always include the caveat “don’t expect me to pay for it.”

To be honest, I am writing this piece today to deal with the grief I am feeling right now about all these emails and discussions.  I have gone through several stages of grief–including a persistent anger–but can’t understand what direction I am being given.  I have referred to this call as a call to “social cleansing” and I will stick with that for now because what I hear and perceive is a call to “move them along,” “get rid of them,” or “make them leave.”

But these statements have forced me to re-examine the “ends” I am trying to achieve in all the efforts I am supporting to deal with the problem. And while it may be far too vague for programmatic purposes, I have settled on the following as the “ends” statement of what I am trying to accomplish. I believe that the end

I believe that the ends of our efforts should be to “provide a homecoming” for those who are on the streets.  Providing a homecoming implies a “welcome back,” a “reintegration,” a “return.”  More than anything (and I want to be careful not to dehumanize the many people who find themselves in this condition) I see homelessness as a form of alienation: alienation from society, from healthy relationships, and ultimately (I fear) from oneself.

I am not going to say, as many suggest, that this alienation is a choice; or perhaps more accurately the inevitable outcome of a series of choices.  To me, the evidence is clear that “choice” has very little to do with it and maybe never did.  But even if there was a choice in there at some point, today, in the moment, we see folks who are adrift, dis-integrated, on the margins.  Though they are in our midst they are the “other” in a way that causes fear.  Though we see them, we do not–indeed, cannot–look at them.  Though we know they are without a home we do not want to imagine the places in which they lay their heads.

And what I am saying is that our goal should be to bring them home.

Now I realize that this can sound paternalistic or condescending and please forgive me if it does, but what I am trying to convey is that we need to reel them in, to send out a message, to find a way to communicate that we want them not just among us, but with us; not just present, but included; not just housed, but home.

What this homecoming will look like varies by the case, but it will certainly mean a return to mental and physical health, a roof, a job if that is possible, meaningful and healthy relationships (even if not with kin), and a sense of peace about where one will go the next day to take care of life’s basic needs.

The Means by Which we Will Achieve these Ends

Though I never knew him, I hope that Ellul would be happy to see an elected official (he himself held local office for a time), focusing on ends. I realize these ends are not fully articulated but if we can grasp the concept of the need for homecoming then we will have taken an important step on the long path towards constructively dealing with homelessness.

But what of our means.  Well, the foregoing should point the way to the kinds of programs, approaches, processes that will probably be necessary: mental health and addiction treatment, housing, job training, and supportive services.

But I would like to focus on what I believe to be the means that will make all these other means actually work.

I believe that the means by which we must approach this challenge is best defined as “pursuit.”  We must doggedly pursue the people whom we wish to welcome home.

Again, I write the foregoing with a bit of trepidation.  I am never certain how my words will be taken and so I need to hear how you hear this–I do not wish to offend.

What I mean by “pursuit” is that we must not give up in our attempt to welcome people home.  We must not grow weary because of the failures, the flameouts, the inevitable disappointments.  We must be determined to continue.

But pursuit has another sense: we must commit to the relational.  We must never see homelessness as a “technical” problem to be solved, a condition that lends itself to “dose/response” type input, or left to a cadre of professionals who deliver programs.  No, we must pursue loving and longstanding relationships as simple folks with the simple commitment to “press on.”

I realize that not everyone is gifted to be a “pursuer.”  I know that others must stand alongside or stand aside as the pursuit continues.  That’s okay.

But for those who are gifted (and I suspect you know who you are); for those who were made, or who have grown to do this work, we must be relentless in our pursuit of the relationships that result in the homecoming of these, our brothers and sisters without homes.

Happy MLK remembrance day.

*See Garrison, Kevin “Jacques Ellul’s Dialectical Theology: Embracing Contradictions about the Kingdom in the New Testament.” in The Ellul Forum.  Issue 60, Fall 2017.

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