Monday, July 10, 2006

Social Prevention Better Than Prosthelytizing

On Wednesday, July 5th, the New York Times ran a story by Jessica Kowal titled "Homeless Alcoholics Receive a Permanent Place to Live, and Drink," covering a program in Seattle which provides living space for homeless alcoholics. This program allows residents to live in the home without any strings attached, for instance, they do not have to go to church or AA meetings as a condition, nor do they have to stop drinking.

Many of the residents are chronic drunks, people who have been known to "beg, drink, urinate or vomit" in public. Conservatives have called the program "Bunks for drunks - [...] a living monument to failed social policy." Interesting choice of words. I would argue that chronic alcoholism is a living monument to a failed society - that is a society based on capitalism which creates the alinated conditions of existance that lead many to turn to alcohol as a solution - a solution which is all to available for all strata of society.

The Seattle program is based on a "housing first" philosophy which meets the essential material needs of people, such as housing, food and saftey, instead of trying to prosthelytize them as a starting point. This makes sense. Even management gurus such as Abraham Maslow tell us that biological (e.g. material) needs must be met first before people can begin to develop self-actualization needs such as spirituality. Maslow's "Heirarchy of Needs" was developed in the 1940s based on extensive scientific research, and correlates with the materialism analysis Marx made of society in general 50 years earlier.

The evidence is clear in this specific case as well. The program costs $13,000 per year for each resident. In 2003, Seattle tax payers paid over $50,000 for each resident for shelters and emergency room treatment, among other things. This as a direct result of the homeless having to live on the streets which inevitably leads them to far more dangerous situations. Not only that, but street living creates the material conditions for a particular type of individual conciousness which is highly alienating and abusive and invariably leads to more alcoholism or worse.

As socialists we should hail the Seattle program as a scientific step in the right direction. Giving people the fundamental foundations to rebuild their lives is essential to improving their lives and society as a whole. Giving people the proper material living conditions - food, shelter and medical - is the first step to reintegrating them into society. At the same time the streets of the urban landscape feel safer and more welcoming. This is a sharp contract with the so-called conservative position that people must sink or swim, and if they want any charity at all they must minimally pay lip-service to some sort of belief system.

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