What About the Trash?
By Scott Wagner
“I think we need to stop making excuses for them and encourage them to clean up after themselves, not do it for them. Nobody has a right to litter.”
Yeeps that's a tough sentence for me. But even so, I haven't got a big complaint about it being said, per se. Like a lot of coarse, broad swipes at reality, there's something in there of use– but the implications and confusions they cause are also important. One thing that we do a lot in these discussions is smoosh together statistical and individual shoulds and is-es into a kind of fuzzy, frothy soup of ideas– then we can argue about what the soup is, using broad brushes and big language. This is a noted problem in philosophy called the is-ought problem, but with this stuff, that's combined with an undifferentiated relationship between statistical and individual reality.
Here's a few observations from the current encampment I visit that use this is-ought problem and our unconscious mashup of statistical and individual portraits.
1. Some individual unsheltered or RV people "should" be cleaner, in the personal responsibility sense of caring for their own health, neighbor relations and political optics that can boomerang on them individually. If they did become cleaner, they would be happier and make others happier. The statement “stop making excuses for them” seems to be saying that we should do what I do occasionally, when I go by and say, 'would y'all please clean up around your RV?' One can encourage individuals to be cleaner, and sometimes we should - sometimes we REELLY should. Are they responsible for their mess, in some ways? Sure. Can we ask them to help out with their own mess? Sure. Is it a good thing to do sometimes, or with certain people, or at certain times? Sure.
2. Is it a good thing to do all the time? Hell no. Even a lot of the time? I personally don't think so. Some individuals can't clean up after themselves; some won't clean up after themselves, but can sometimes be encouraged and helped along enough via example and cheery good neighborliness to take much more care with their trash eventually; some don't care much about the mess, and it won't get cleaned unless a volunteer does it, which might beautify the streets in an important way, like I was trying to do last Saturday on a sensitive spot. Some people come into the area and dump trash that isn't related to or isn't much related to the residents, and it's hard to teach those guys personal responsibility by watching those piles grow.
None of those various types of situations and homeless individuals are benefited best through the 'let's not do it for them' approach. Any simple rule like 'let's not do it for them' at the very least has important exceptions --- I will also say that volunteers picking up a lot of trash is appreciated a great deal, and that, for most, our example as volunteers tends to be followed, not depended on more. The overall emphasis on personal responsibility is an easy shibboleth with meaningful gaps in usefulness, and is often used to justify cruelty and withholding simple charity, like cleaning up a big mess you can clean up easily. That's one reason why some of us react to personal responsibility arguments poorly. Even if it's great here and there, in its place, in the right dosages, it's an especially-often bullshit overall philosophy in a trauma-soaked population. Individually, seemingly easy or normal-seeming tasks can be gargantuan or impossible for the damaged. We shouldn't toss around our shoulds as enthusiastically as we do, and should think more about how "what is" dictates what happens.
3. The encampments where volunteers are working are getting cleaner and cleaner now, mostly through the efforts of the residents. We occasionally provide simple assistance and simple examples. That often feels supportive and right to me. Many residents help clean the trash when we bring a truck and bags. A LOT of personal responsibility happens in these villages, some of it through what we do to "do it for them." The dictum of “don’t do it for them” is of use for a relatively small percentage of homeless individuals, with a kind of opposite "do it for them" and "let them make messes without comment" at least as appropriate many times.
4. The unsheltered as a group (statistically) are messier than most, but that's because, as others have said, they have a harder time staying clean because of societal abuses. I think we absolutely should "make excuses", regularly and often, especially with officials. When NYC has a garage strike and after four days the curbs and streets are piled high with garbage of every sort, do people point at New Yorkers and say, "Oh what slobs you are; why don't you take care of the place?” Of course not, we understand the problem.
5. We don't have to decide which of these countervailing truths are "the most important" right now, the one we must emphasize all the time. There's no conflict when we think we should ask someone to clean up their mess, and when we cut them as a population slack, or they cut themselves slack.
6. The unsheltered have a double-digit percentage of them who need mild-to-major counseling about hoarding. This may be higher than in the housed population but that is not certain. With hoarders, “don’t do it for them” is extremely problematic. People equate hoarded goods and trash, when these items come about in two nearly separate ways, with two entirely separate cures. These people have to be treated clinically, and village life has to accommodate their presence, probably in uncomfortable compromises. Again, simple dictums are sometimes useful, sometimes problematic.
7. "Nobody has a right to litter" is another kinda-sorta truism. Sure, it's always illegal to litter - but many such "shoulds" have to disappear when you don't have trash service. Shoulds are harder to suss out clearly when no one is helping, one pile is the same as another (and piles is all you get to do), there’s no regular garbage pick up, and when you're traumatized, trained out of the habit of cleanliness, stressed, distracted, and otherwise fucked. Also, when society treats an entire group of people as pariahs, some of those people will not care much about the greater good of society. Again, we hope for greater individual personal responsibility. These two ideas can co-exist; I think they must, with a natural tension between them respected.
8. I think any such broad-brush contention would better serve with these kinds of offsets and healthy contrasts mentioned at the same time, or at least alluded to.
9. The city has a 'live in your own filth, you pigs' sanitation policy which we oppose at every opportunity. But if we set that aside, we might be surprised how hard it is for damaged, weak, and/or hounded people to buy and keep trash bags, or get their septic tank to stop leaking, or find trash receptacles, or keep dogs out of trash, or keep neighbor's trash under control, or avoid having drunk friends and neighbors add to piles. These are not trivial exceptions to the urge to "stop making excuses for them...[don't] do it for them." We don't get to choose to ignore these deep offsets to any call for personal responsibility. We get to take both perspectives as appropriate, and weigh out sensibly in the moment when one is important, or when the other is not.