Where I live in Bozeman, Montana, the City Commission and many residents have been discussing proposed Ordinance 2147, “Adopting Regulations for Camping on City Right of Way.” Discussion centers on how much residents should tolerate people who live in vehicles parked on city streets as well as reasonable regulation of urban camping. Even some who work as homeless advocates have claimed that the city is reasonable to consider these regulations. For example, Bozeman’s Human Resource Development Council (HRDC) Housing Director Brian Guyer stated recently:
“I understand that the issue of urban camping is complicated, and I don’t want to get in a situation where we are trying to arrest our way out of homelessness,” Guyer said. “The city needs a tool to enforce parking regulations to enforce some rules around urban camping. So, I appreciate the empathy and the humanity that they’ve sort of introduced with this ordinance. I support it. I think that you know, it helps the city to maintain, you know, hygiene standards.”
And even where some, such as Executive Director of Family Promise Christel Chvilicek, have argued that the five-day parking limit proposed by Ordinance 2147 is too harsh, she and Guyer agree that perhaps a 14-day limit would be a “much more reasonable expectation” (Guyer).
On the political right, predictably, there is much consternation over having to do anything at all to accommodate unhoused people and general frustration that the liberal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has forced this situation on Bozeman at all by ruling in a case in another city that urban camping cannot be outlawed when there is not an option of shelter for all the residents who want it. Officially, according to the Bozeman Code, camping on public property is not permitted, and so the Code does not currently comply with the ruling. That sounds absurd to those who have no sympathy for people often equated with “bums,” “deadbeats,” or “thugs.” Many of them believe that the proposed ordinance is too kind to unhoused people.
Now, let me be unequivocal. I am against Ordinance 2147 as well as any other proposed ordinance that restricts camping. I am especially against one that makes it harder for people, no matter their circumstances, who do not have shelter, and I am against any approach to people that does not begin with mutual respect.
One undiscussed aspect of the proposed ordinance troubles me a lot. The “Definitions” section of the proposed ordinance defines “involuntarily homeless”:
“Involuntarily homeless” means a person that does not have the means to acquire their own shelter and who does not otherwise have access to shelter or transitional housing.
The reason for this definition is to help the city become compliant with the court ruling, which actually offers no legal protection for being homeless. Rather, it only protects an unhoused person when that person cannot acquire their own shelter or get access to temporary or emergency shelter (such as HRDC’s Warming Center). And by shelter, tents on public lands or vehicles legally parked do not count!
Yet, why is that the standard? That is, why is it the standard for our tolerance of homelessness that we will only accommodate those people who have no choice but to be homeless? We know that the city has only proposed this definition because it has been forced to by the Federal Court, but nothing the Federal Court has ruled forbids us from going beyond the bare minimum. We could legally – and certainly ethically – increase our tolerance standard.
Splitting our homeless population into those who are voluntarily homeless from those who are involuntarily homeless moralizes a convenient legal category for the city. First, it suggests that everyone who can find a home in our town is legally expected to find a home or shelter, and secondly it suggests we will only grudgingly tolerate those who cannot through at best highly restrictive rules on where they can live, for how long, and under what conditions. And since we regulate every other aspect of living – what homeowners and tenants can and cannot do – the city surely thinks this is a reasonable measure to meet other priorities of the community, such as “parking regulation” and “you know, hygiene standards.”
However, on what basis do we as a society or city have for insisting that people who could have shelter should have shelter? We certainly know a lot of people agree with insisting on this. Many posts in local online forums and articles have displayed some sympathy for anyone who really has no choice in a city with runaway housing prices and rents, but they have just as regularly shown no sympathy for those who have chosen that lifestyle or who at least prefer it to the alternative. Other upset housed residents cite unhoused people as often criminals, who live in unsanitary conditions, suffer from mental illness, use drugs, drink too much, and are regularly unemployed. They express disgust at having neighbors from a different economic class than perhaps they thought they were buying into.
We could argue endlessly about the soundness of these claims, but I plan to take a different tact. I want to challenge the line of thinking that has no sympathy for “voluntary homelessness” on two grounds. The first ground is to demonstrate that there is no sound moral argument for believing that living in a permanent shelter – that is, a home – makes one a better person than someone who chooses not to. The second ground is that the problems that inevitably arise from respecting homelessness as a valid choice for life should not be solved by ordinance and enforcement. Rather, we will go a lot further with community-based approaches rooted in mutual respect.
To make this case, let us first dispense with treating “the homeless” as a class of people. While the law wants to divide being homeless into two classes – involuntary and voluntary – classifying a group as “the homeless” is dangerous. For example, if we ask, do the homeless act in undesirable ways within our community? Of course, if we ask it that way, we are bound to treat the question as though we are on a scale. Some will tell anecdotes of all the things they have directly experienced that they find undesirable. Then, as a result of these bad experiences, this being true of at least one or some people within the class of “the homeless,” the negative characteristics then become applicable to the entire group of people. So, they will say, “The homeless use drugs, commit crimes, suffer from mental illness, steal, and are lazy.” Of course, we could just as easily say the same things about “the homed” by picking out examples of housed people who have all of these same traits.
We should therefore be precise and not speak of a class of people who are “the homeless.” Nothing about being unsheltered makes someone complicit in the socially undesirable acts of another unsheltered person. Rather, there are individuals who do not have shelter and who may also exhibit undesirable qualities. We can, if we insist, attach the adjective “homeless” to that individual, though there are other reasons outside the scope of this essay to question even that, but attaching a judgment to an entire class of people, such as the homeless, is unjust and arises from a fallacy. It is much the same fallacy that arises in racism, where the actions of some people have often been unjustly applied to a whole class of people.
So, if being homeless at best applies to individuals and not to classes of people, is there any reason at all to socially denigrate people who do not have shelters or to lift up people who do? That is, is there something socially or morally better about finding permanent shelter? What I am getting at is the core of my assertion, that we should not be treating people who choose homelessness as worse than those who are so involuntarily or from people who have permanent shelter.
Many have written about how having – and especially owning – a home is a key to happiness, while others have argued against it. If we look at things simply, however, does anything about living in a permanent shelter make a person morally superior or better than a person who does not – regardless of circumstance? Try as I might, I can see no contradiction in the proposition, “I do not live in a home, and I am a good person.” And I see none in “I chose not to live in a home, and I am a good person.” Or “I live in a home, and I am not a good person.” In each case, those statements might be true. Nothing makes them automatically false. The phrase “live in a home” adds nothing to the moral equation. There are certainly advantages to living in a home. It protects us from elements, it keeps us in good graces with the Bozeman Code, and we may also receive some mental health benefits. No one is arguing that for many people, living in a home is not more desirable. However, that by itself does not make it a morally better choice for all people in all circumstances. We can easily imagine people who will thrive more not living in a home. Take, for example, the experience reported by the travelers portrayed in the movie Nomadland. All lives have hardships, but were all these people worse for having not lived in a home even though many of them chose that way of life?
If we are not treating “homeless” as a class and can find no contradiction for all people in the proposition, “Choosing to be homeless might be better for me,” then we simply have no moral grounds to restrict it taken by itself.
Let us consider a more nuanced objection.
It may be that by itself homelessness can be a sound choice for some people, but what if there are social reasons to restrict it? Perhaps, the collective problems created by tolerating people who have no shelter interfere with other values that the city might hold dear, such as having enough parking on side streets and sanitation standards? Even if we admit that we should not criminalize homelessness whether taken as a class or taken individually, perhaps we must when considering all the varied needs of a community.
We cannot deny that conflicts arise. If two people want to stand on the same spot, only one can occupy it, and often there is no better reason for either person. If I have a house with a lawn, it is true that I might rather have that parking space open than occupied by someone who is now living in it. I live in an apartment, and I admit I am always happy when my neighbors move away and therefore provide me those few days where I do not have to worry whether I or they are making too much noise. By the very nature of any two beings, we often observe conflicting desires. The life killed for our food may not have wanted to die. A person we fall in love with may not love us in return.
The question here, then, is a much harder question. While many succumb to the fallacy that there is an inherent problem with homelessness either defined as a class or at an individual level, most people have issues dealing with conflicting values. Maybe we shouldn’t treat all unsheltered people as a class, but perhaps the cumulative effect caused by homeless people collides with other values we hold dear. We may, then, need to treat people as a collective class – that is, “the homeless” – to promote a more important community need, or so the argument goes.
Desires indeed clash in our community, and yet on what basis do we as a city and society pick winners? No doubt the answer many will give is that we live in a representative democracy, and these issues are settled at the ballot box by the majority of voters or at least by the majority of the representatives who make up the City Commission. Right and wrong is simply determined by the agreed upon social contract, which in our case has some version of majority rule.
However, do we need to make decisions that way, and should we make decisions that way when it comes to conflicts between people, some of whom have permanent shelters and some of whom do not? Should it be government and majority rule that determines whether people should be mandated, where possible, to find shelter and the conditions under which they are allowed not to?
While I personally would challenge the legitimacy of our city government or any other government under any system to justly decide this, we do not need to go that far in this case. Instead, we can simply ask whether there is a better way for resolving conflict between people than an ordinance that applies the same standard to all people. For example, what if I want people living outside my home or do not mind if they erect tents on it? What if I am okay with someone in a van living indefinitely on the curb outside my home? What if my neighbors all agree with that? That is, what if problems could be solved, perspectives listened to, and a range of options consented on without asking the city government to determine that for us?
In our society, when there is a problem, people are quick to call the police. Many ask what the government is going to do about this problem or that one. It is a wonder we do not call the police or our congressman to help us know what to cook for dinner or the best place to get gas. People living outside our homes are our neighbors. They have every bit the same moral worth to be who they are as we do who live in homes. That is, all people simply by nature of being people are worthy of respect. And yes, we all have conflicting needs or desires. Is it better that we bring about the power of the law and the use of force to deal with our conflicts, or might we actually come together as neighbors and communities to meet and discuss and then come up with solutions to our issues? In some cases, it might be better for neighbors living in vans to move to another more welcoming neighborhood. In others, it might make a lot of sense for us to deal with the inconvenience of fewer parking spots and a more challenging garbage situation just so people can have a consistent place to sleep at night. Breaking down the walls between people and going beyond the circumstances (homeless versus homeowner versus tenant) can only be beneficial.
Yes, it is true in our society that we can often be very bad at communicating or knowing how to solve problems between people. We can be really bad at solving our own problems and even worse at handing those in our closest relationships. How can we, then, possibly communicate well with strangers? It can feel easier to pass the buck to authorities and not directly deal with people as people. However true this is, it cannot be an excuse for choosing ordinances that dehumanize people and treat them unjustly. It cannot allow for an ordinance that City Commissioner Chris Coburn admitted would “effectively criminalize homelessness” (Bozeman Daily Chronicle, August 9, 2023). We could do better. There are all kinds of people in our community trained in facilitation, mediation, and working with people to reach consensus. Rather than lean on a structure that only knows how to impose rules and enforcement of those rules, wouldn’t we all be better off if we tried to empower ourselves in these situations to meet with our neighbors or at least seek out the support of people with experience to help? In my case, I have facilitated thousands of meetings, including intimacy and communication workshops. I would love to help people talk to each other and solve problems, and where problems cannot be solved, come up with mitigation strategies that still keep us far short of the proposed unjust legislation.
Working with your community, which now includes people who may be living on the street, and beginning with a premise of mutual respect simply makes too much sense not to be the preferred option. We can do this, and what that looks like citywide will not be the same from neighborhood to neighborhood. On each block, it may look very different and involve unique sets of challenges, but the more this process works, the greater the cultural shift and critical mass. That critical mass of success will allow the larger community to pitch in to deal with more challenging situations. We do not need the shelter of the government to protect us from the storms caused by other people. As we can see from this proposed ordinance, all it really does is react to a court ruling and therefore create greater injustice. Being homeless either as a class or as an individual, whether by choice or despite circumstances, does not make one morally less of a person. Therefore, by creating more problems and further complications for people without shelter, the government has not actually solved our community’s problems; it has only persecuted one group at the expense of another. Even if we are only slightly successful using the approach I propose, we would certainly be better off than this.
Therefore, I have solid reasons for opposing proposed Bozeman Ordinance 2147 and would love to work on a new way forward, working with my community and having the dialogue required to build relationships and solutions to the often conflicting desires, fears, and boundaries we all have. All people, regardless of their shelter situation, are worthy of our respect. With that mutual respect, let us work together as communities to do something for each other.