Before I left for university, I grew up in a small town in the eastern part of Belgium. Major political challenges were foreign to our community, and the dullness of life was repeatedly cursed by my younger self. In my hometown lived one homeless person, an older man who everyone knew by name. He struggled with alcohol problems and often found himself begging in front of the local supermarket. Although he died several years ago, I still think of him regularly. In all likelihood, this is the only article ever dedicated to him.

As the years passed, and planes and friends led me to larger cities, I also learned about homelessness on a different scale. A scale that forces one to dwell, if only for a moment, on the normalized cruelty present in our society. A scale that also prompts one to try to find a solution to this ever-growing problem. That start to such a solution may lie—however unexpectedly—in the small community I grew up in, and in the fact that I still remember this particular old man vividly.

Living Together

Aristotle suggested that man is by nature a “political creature” (zoōn politikon) who unites with other humans to establish communities and societies. Although this natural urge to live together has brought man prosperity and well-being, living with others is also always accompanied by social tensions, constraints, and conflicts. Reflecting on this dual outcome naturally leads to questions. One of these, and perhaps the most important, is this: to what extent is individual freedom still possible in an organized community? Living peacefully together means taking account of each other’s values, norms, and ideals while simultaneously observing the agreed commandments and prohibitions. Consideration for one another is never easy, whether the context is a family, a sports club, or a village. However, it goes without saying that the larger a community becomes, the harder it becomes to maintain a healthy balance in this social game.

Meanwhile, I no longer reside in my hometown and have lived in some larger cities such as Antwerp and Munich. While living in these ever-expanding cities, the faces around me changed daily. Soon, I witnessed how in these large, highly fragmented communities it was tremendously difficult to get a grip on social dynamics, and how moral instincts such as trust and compassion tended to crumble under these conditions. Why is that? Because this endless coming and going of people gives expression to a phenomenon called anonymity. A phenomenon that, I believe, ultimately leads to important ethical problems, including homelessness.

It is beyond any doubt that one who knows the face of a sufferer is more likely to aid that person. Anonymity is an important and well-known problem in ethics. Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher and professor at Princeton, showed exactly this. Singer explains why, for example, we would never hesitate to save someone from drowning in a pond in our street, but at the same time we would not feel morally obliged to help someone who is dying on the other side of the world (and, for example, could also be saved by enough financial aid). This is partly because we don’t see these people suffering directly and don’t know their faces.

In addition, there is a strong correlation between the number of people who are able to help someone in need (a homeless person for example) and the number of people who do so effectively. The more people bear the shared responsibility, the less each individual feels obliged to fulfill his or her own moral duties. As a result, no one offers any help.

Yet there is no justification for this. The fact that other people do not fulfill their moral duties does not absolve us of ours, even though many people delude themselves that it does. Even the government is often used to shift moral duties onto, but a government will never be able to fulfill these moral duties. Therefore every possible solution to a problem like homelessness must come bottom-up, from the community itself. Charity donations or sprawling government initiatives are sticking plasters on a wooden leg as long as people live alongside each other as strangers. We need to understand that homelessness is a social problem and not an economic one, for there is plenty of money in the West.

A Way Out

This article was never intended to present a ready-made solution to the problem of homelessness, because there is none. My intention is, however, to encourage reflection on the underlying condition that can contribute to a solution. Because if nothing changes, the needless human suffering will only increase.

The necessary condition for addressing human suffering is a less anonymous and more locally oriented society, one that focuses on the local economy and preserving its our own culture. A patchwork of small-scale communities with their own traditions and customs, as was the case in Europe and the US for hundreds of years, offers the possibility of actively knowing the face of your neighbor and so keeping our moral compasses calibrated. While this increasingly sounds like Utopia, and does not immediately eliminate other problems associated with homelessness (such as substance abuse or property right restrictions), it does create a basis for more solidarity, understanding, and humanity, three things largely absent throughout the West.

It is, for the reasons I have sketched, only a localist society that can propagate this kind of solidarity. A society where we protect what is good and can be grateful for what we have. A community where unbridled ‘progress’ should never come at the expense of the weak and disadvantaged.

Economists and politicians will accuse me of using a sentimental argument rather than a scientific one. And to some extent my argument should be read in that capacity. However, what makes the point legitimate is that it shows that moral intuitions fade in modern, gigantic “communities,” leading to horrible moral callousness. If we want to address the problem underlying modern homelessness, we must dare to reassess modern anonymity.

In my community, everyone knew the story of this homeless man. In the end, no one was really able to help him get back on track. There was then, and there is now, no clear way to “fix” such a situation. But at least he was treated by everyone as a fellow human being, as an individual and not as a statistic. There were plenty of people who regularly struck up a conversation with him or offered him something to eat. He was indeed homeless, but he was not anonymous. And somehow this made his situation slightly better because instead of being ostracized from public life, his suffering was acknowledged. He reminded us that life does not always run smoothly for everyone, and that—especially in these moments—it is so important to be there for each other, as a community.

Image Credit: Camille Pissarro, “The Holy Mary Church in Knokke,” (1894).

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  1. I don’t understand the headline–there’s no “solution” demonstrated or proposed here. Should it be something more like “Conservatism as a response to homelessness”? Not clear to me what could have been done in the case you describe. Other than banning alcohol, or in a small enough town, for everyone to agree, informally, to refuse to sell or provide it to him.

  2. I also don’t see “conservatism” in the article. I do see a strong emphasis on community, which is not the same thing.

    Anonymity isn’t a synonym for callousness or failure to be humane. For example, an anonymous donation frees the recipient from feeling obligated to an individual, which could become socially significant if the recipient’s situation improves and they re-enter mainstream society and later encounter that individual donor.

    The personal donation is like a bandaid, or single meal given to the starving, in contrast to the long-term perspective in which the donor gives not only out of generosity but also free from any temptation to feel superior to the recipient.

    Better yet, give the person a job so they can be self-supporting in the future. That would fit the general notion of a politically “conservative” approach.

  3. I live in a large American city with a significant homeless population and I’m not sure about the conclusions drawn here. The people experiencing homelessness are most certainly known, often well and by name -maybe not by every one who passes by, but certainly by a large and caring community of outreach personnel, charity workers, police officers, social workers, people who maintain our parks, employees at convenience stores, and the staff at public libraries. I believe that all of these people are doing what they can to act morally and responsibly with in a society that does not really value human life or dignity at the highest, structural level – but I am certain that care abounds at the individual level. I am not sure the size of a community matters much in this respect (as evidenced by the unfortunate outcome for the man from your hometown) but the societal values certainly do. This seems less like a liberal versus conservative issue (those terms only define our approaches to solving a problem rather than identify its cause) than an issue of ours being a society that envisions itself as a collection of individuals rather than as a whole. That is more of a spiritual or perceptual problem than a political one. Given that reality, the people offering charity, either liberally (direct assistance, soup kitchens, etc) or conservatively (job training, welfare work requirements, etc), are really doing all they can to react humanely to an inhuman situation.

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