Home > Blog: Currents & Futures > Homeless & Hopeless – Both are Unnecessary (Part 1 of 2)

Homeless & Hopeless – Both are Unnecessary

The First Challenge:  Changing our assumptions.  I’m going to talk about our national crisis of homelessness, but first I want to tell you a story about one of the 20th Century’s most famous industrialists – John D. Rockefeller.

We know that John D. made his money in oil.  We know that, but its not quite true. He made his initial millions of dollars in KEROSENE.  In the days before widespread electric lighting, people in the US lit and heated their homes with kerosene, a fairly stable and clean-burning liquid.

The refining of kerosene produced a number of unwanted by-products.  One of them was called GASOLINE. Nobody knew what to do with this highly volatile and explosive waste product.  So, they did what was in vogue at that time — they dumped it into the nearest river. By the millions of gallons.

The story goes that Rockefeller was standing at a waste pipe, watching thousands of gallons of gasoline being dumped into a river, and said to himself,

“There’s got to be something we can DO with this stuff!”

By asking the right question, making the right presumption, he came up with a solution.  (The solution was ALWAYS in front of him. He just needed to change his way of thinking, from “waste” to “resource”.)

Fast forward to the 21st Century:  we have tens of thousands of people sleeping on the streets of all of our major cities.  Various officials and activists are trying to find solutions to “the problem”. I ask a different question… I make a different presumption…

“There’s got to be something we can DO with these people!!”

Notice that I said “WITH”, not “FOR” and not “TO”.  

The problem exists because we could be looking at opportunities, but instead are seeing problems.  We approach homelessness as a “problem” and as such, do not see the solutions that are staring right in our face.

And, we don’t even see the problem.  We think of the problem as “homelessness”, and propose solutions that will warehouse bodies under roofs.  Increase the number of “shelter beds”… Few ask the question: what happens to those thousands of people after they wake up and get out of their shelter bed in the morning?  Where do they go? What do they do? How do they live? What is their vision? How do they contribute to the good of our society?

In order to see the opportunities, we have to change our thinking.  In order to change our thinking, we have to challenge our assumptions.

The Second Challenge:  WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?  A person/family living unsheltered is generally just the tip of a very large iceberg of dysfunction.  On page 156 of “Creating a World That Works for All”, I identify over 30 different ways that we can find fulfillment and enoughness.  “Shelter” is just one of them. We have to resolve ALL OF THEM. (Actually, it’s easier than trying to resolve just one.)

The Third Challenge:  WHO IS LOOKING?  When I say “Homelessness is a problem”, who is the “I” that speaks?  What are his fears, his longings, his motivations? What are her life experiences, her expectations, her visions?  The people trying to “solve” the issue of homelessness must change their focusing lens, from “problem” to “opportunity”.  They have to be able to SEE THEMSELVES, in relationship to the people they are helping.

When Marie Antoinette was told that the peasants had no bread, her reply was “Let them eat cake”.  This was NOT a statement of insensitivity or hard-heartedness. It was a statement of ignorance: she had never heard of a condition where a person did not have access to bread, or cake or croissants.  A shortage of one? Just switch to the other.

Before you look down your nose at Marie Antoinette, let me tell you about my own “Antoinette Moment”.  

I was in Russia in the early 1990’s, as a presenter at a conference on Conflict Resolution.  At our first meal, the servers brought out what I thought to be a lunch appetizer — a small beet salad.  Sitting at the English-speaking table, we were chatting while eating our “appetizer”.

When some time went by and we didn’t see more food, I called over the server and said, “We’re ready for the rest of our meal.”

The server, a young woman with great English, said, “There is no more food.”

I didn’t get it.  I had never been in a hotel that didn’t have ample supplies of  food. I thought she meant that our appetizer was all we got on the meal plan.  So, deepening my ignorance, I said, “It’s okay, I’ve got money. Bring us some more food.”  (I held up a wad of rubles to make my point.)

The young server began to cry.  Through her tears, she said, “THERE IS NO MORE FOOD!”

Duh.  Face to face with a situation I had never experienced as an adult professional.  Yes, I had heard there were food shortages in Russia at that time, but never imagined that MY hotel would run out of food.

Once I recovered, the path became obvious.  While other Westerners had started making plans to travel to other hotels and restaurants for food, I proposed something radical: that for the 3 weeks of the conference, we eat like Russians.  It took some adjusting (and some weight loss), but we managed to understand the issue of the failing Russian economy… from the inside.

I also understood why the Russian server was crying.  I am sure that she was taking food from the hotel’s kitchen to feed her children.  It’s what my mother would have done. It’s what I would have done — cut back on food for the overstuffed Americans, and let her children live.

[The remaining Challenges 4 through 6 will be added in September.]

6 Comments, RSS

  • nysqually

    says on:
    August 21, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    Do you know that Marie Antoinette actually did not say “let them eat cake”

    That revolutionaries said she said that to incite the riots that led to the overthrow and her beheading.

    I apologize, I can no longer recall accurately from whom I learned this, but it was in a recently released historical feature film from a trustworthy source. I was grateful to learn that she actually not that clueless as you and such cliche’s make her out to be.

    • Shariff

      says on:
      August 21, 2018 at 9:55 pm


      Yes, I’ve been told that she did not make the remark, and that historians have revised their assessment of her. So, which is accurate: the original statement or the revision? Which is driven by the propaganda of its time?

      I can easily believe that she did not say such a thing out of callousness. And, I can believe her to be clueless — BECAUSE I WAS, in Russia.

      Another Marie Antoinette factoid: that she did not know where milk came from. To show her, her husband, Louis XVI, gave her a “pleasure dairy” — complete with marble walls, floors and ceilings, crystal chandeliers and gowned milkmaids, milking cows to the accompaniment of chamber music. As this building still exists, it makes revisioning a little more difficult. (Google ‘Marie Antoinette Pleasure Dairy’ for images.)

      My last point: remember the lengths that the Buddha’s father went to, to keep his son ignorant of the world, so that he would grow up to be a king instead of a wise man. While the exact “let them eat cake” statement may be apocryphal, is it so hard to believe that elites work hard to keep themselves immeshed in a story that justifies their behavior?

  • SCC Elankovan

    says on:
    August 21, 2018 at 11:35 pm

    Having been a refugee in India for 17 years and seen and experienced a lot of hardship and poverty I have some understanding of this. But in the circles of Colombo I dip in and out of realities are very different I find it difficult to believe that people could be so naive but I take your point about being immeshed in story’s that justify ones behavior.

    • Shariff

      says on:
      August 22, 2018 at 12:34 am

      Great to hear from you Elanko! It’s been too long…

      Yes, very interesting circles in and around the centers of power in Sri Lanka.

  • Brenda Hamilton

    says on:
    August 22, 2018 at 3:17 am

    This post is very moving as well as challenging. My city has a large population of street people, many of whom are on drugs, are bipolar, have schizophrenia and other serious mental problems. To just wade in amongst them to figure out how to “utilize” this ‘resource’ would be foolhardy. For some reason I don’t understand, the mental hospitals here all closed down about ten years ago. Homelessness here is not just a social problems, it’s also a physiological problem that needs some strong handed hard work and intelligence.

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