Autonomy: The Missing Piece In Too Many Homelessness Initiatives

Autonomy and Homelessness

Photo by Clay LeConey on Unsplash

Paternalistic Approaches Are Doomed to Fail, Yet Keep Popping Up

The average day in the life of a housed person is full of choices. There are a lot of decisions to be made, from when to wake up to what to have for breakfast to which little coffee shop we want to stop at on the way to work. This is such a widely understood phenomenon that CEOs and tech bros have popularized the term “decision fatigue” and taken steps to guard against it, like wearing the same outfit every day.

For many unhoused people, decision fatigue is far from a concern. And not in a freeing, “saving all your decision-making power for the ones that really count” kind of way, but because much of their lives are controlled by other people.

In order to navigate and survive the system we have built, many homeless people are forced to give up their personal agency in exchange for the basic necessities that all human beings require to live.

Programs to ‘Help the Homeless’ Are Often Overly Controlling

From shelters to soup kitchens, the culture of control within the homelessness services industry is stifling. Strict rules govern the simplest of interactions, and transgressing against them can carry heavy penalties.

It can be difficult to learn, memorize, and abide by the differing rules of every place you go to as an unhoused person, especially since the list is usually long. However, not doing so can mean the difference between getting a bed for the night or being put out on the street because you folded your blanket wrong or something.

The “zero tolerance” attitude many of these places have means that you’ll face the same penalty for eating a snack in the wrong place as you would for putting someone else in danger.

The mismatch between the severity of the average infraction at a place like this (i.e., not wearing shoes in the shower) and the severity of the punishment (losing access to food or shelter indefinitely) is either completely overlooked by everyone involved despite frequent complaints, or it’s a feature, not a bug.

Why Are We So Quick to Remove Agency?

I’ve written before about how the homelessness sector can attract people who genuinely want to help AND people with bad intentions who are just looking for easy access to a vulnerable population.

For the latter group, strict rules with uneven consequences are just another tool for exercising their power over others they see as beneath them. They frame these policies as being “tough love” or “for the greater good” or, at the very least, out of their hands. But deep down, they enjoy being able to control people and withhold their basic human needs.

They’ve gotten away with this for long enough. The science is in on tough love, and we know it doesn’t work. We’ve had years and years of this “father knows best” style of homeless outreach that has yet to produce the outcomes we want to see.

It’s time to admit that father doesn’t know best and that it’s actually the people going through it who know their needs best. It’s time for those people whose compassion led them into this line of work to start leading with their compassion. Push back against these punitive ideas we’ve been raised to believe in and implement better policies that treat the people you’re trying to help as actual, full humans.

Let’s move away from top-down control and lean into autonomy.

Autonomy is Natural, Yet Revolutionary

Strangely, the basic human urge toward self-determination is seen as revolutionary when unhoused people express it loudly. Yet, because of how homeless people have been dehumanized for decades, it is revolutionary. 

The revolution is gaining steam. Several autonomously governed initiatives have sprung up in the past few years. Many of these initiatives that were made for unhoused people, by unhoused people, have achieved results that the paternalistic programs of the past could only dream of.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the people who live within a certain community and experience its complexities daily would be the ones best equipped to understand what is needed to help themselves and their fellow community members. It shouldn’t be surprising that a problem caused by lack of access to resources was solved by finally being given access to those resources. 

Thousands, if not millions, of dollars are being spent in cities and states across America on getting together so-called experts to try and solve the problem of homelessness from the top down. These think tanks are trying to come up with a one size fits all solution that can be implemented from California to Maine that will end homelessness once and for all.

Wouldn’t it be easier and more effective to redirect the money funding these intellectual efforts into the communities you’re trying to help?

The ‘Don’t Give Cash’ Mindset in its Final Form

Why is it so much easier to secure funding for these well-credentialed brainstorming sessions than it would be to provide housing directly to people in need of it in your community? Why can a charity with next to no transparency rake in the donations while homeless organizers on gofundme get nothing but abuse?

I think what we see here is the “don’t give them cash; they’ll only spend it on alcohol” mindset in its final form.

On an individual level, this mindset is misinformed. On a macro level, it’s maddening.

Autonomy and agency have been so thoroughly removed from unhoused people that it seems perfectly natural that they not be allowed access to funding, housing, or any other direct support unless someone with an advanced degree and a summer home gets to dictate how they can use it. 

Our biases against unhoused people prime us to believe they can’t be trusted with even basic resources without being monitored like a child with their first allowance. That’s a belief that needs to be broken.

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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