Homelessness is often regarded as a sign of failure. From the political left, it is viewed as a failure of existing social institutions to adequately facilitate care for the most economically vulnerable. From the political right, it represents a failure of affected individuals to take personal responsibility for their material wellbeing. In this essay, I argue that homelessness instead should be regarded as a sign of success, both intended and unintended. The institutions primarily responsible for managing the homeless in the United States are designed to deny them security, dignity, and autonomy, and they are quite successful at doing so. This is to be expected in what Glenn Albrecht calls a corrumpalist (from the Latin corrumpere, “to destroy”) socio-economic system, according to which those in power favor the destruction of bodies that prove not to be profit bearing. But a good number of homeless people nevertheless succeed at living and making a living partially freely from corrumpalist institutions despite the crushing burdens they bear on a daily basis. The housed have much to learn from these unintended successes so long as we, too, seek to free ourselves from the grip of these institutions.
The central value of home to human beings is the starting point for this dialogue between two sides of one thinker. One side focuses on the feelings about homelessness as a blemish on the cityscape, a shortcoming of civilization. The other side theorizes about homelessness in terms of societal obligations and respect due to persons. The two approaches come closer as they face the questions: How should we respond to homeless persons?, and, What should we do about their homelessness? The meeting of feeling and theory turns toward the humane challenge at the heart of homelessness, a challenge that must touch the heart of the thinker.
I begin with a consideration of laws that would ban begging and argue that a morally adequate interpretation of the First Amendment would support the conclusion that any legal ban on begging is unconstitutional. I explain why our legal tradition of First Amendment interpretation does not treat begging as protected speech, but argue that this legal tradition is open to moral criticism. I then go on to make moral arguments as to why laws and policies that do not directly involve issues of speech, but instead deny the homeless a right to make use of public spaces, also ought to be unconstitutional.