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How You Feel About Homelessness Could Hinge On Your Faith In Capitalism

Julia Reihs/KUT
A forum attendee waves both hands in the air, hoping to ask a question about Austin's public camping ordinances. The forum, one of many public discussions about homelessness in Austin in 2019, was held at the Austin Convention Center in August.

From Texas Standard:

For some, Austin doesn’t feel like the relaxed, artsy city they knew a couple decades ago. The city’s population has exploded in recent years, and with that has come big-city problems.

Homeless encampments on public streets have been part of that. And those encampments upset people like Claudia Cuchia. Ever since Mayor Steve Adler relaxed rules allowing the homeless to camp on the street, Cuchia says she’s afraid to walk under the overpass near her house.

“I have fear when I encounter the people. That’s right where I live,” Cuchia says.

Cuchia describes herself as a conservative activist, and is a home and business owner in South Austin. She says she’s had enough of the trash left behind by the homeless. The feces, the needles – all that makes her feel afraid.

“I don’t care what led to that. I shouldn’t have to have them trash out my neighborhood,” she says.

Credit Courtesy Claudia Cuchia
South Austin home and business owner Claudia Cuchia wants a recall of Austin Mayor Steve Adler because of the way he and the city council have dealt with Austin's homeless residents.

Homelessness stirs complex, uncomfortable feelings in people. The frustration and anger Cuchia feels is shared by others in the city. At an Austin City Council meeting last fall, some of the anger was palpable. One woman demanded the city to reinstate the ban on public camping. Another woman  expressed deep fear about the possibility of a new homeless shelter in South Austin, worried about it being "within viewing distance of an elementary school."

There can be all kinds of reasons for the anger. But John Jost, a political psychologist at New York University, says a person’s feelings about homelessness have a lot to do with how much faith they have in one thing: capitalism. In other words, “whether we think that the world and the social systems that we’re part of are really fair,” Jost says.

Jost has studied how people view inequality in society. He says those who identify as conservative find it easier than those who identify as liberal to blame the individual, instead of the system, when they see a homeless person. In a study he published this year, he measured the body sweat and facial movements of study participants as they watched videos of homeless people. His findings? People who had faith in capitalism were less upset by the images.

“Some people engage in a secondary process where they think, Well, they must have done something to deserve their fate. Maybe it’s about alcohol or drug use or maybe it’s about something else,” Jost says.

Jost says it’s a coping mechanism – it’s what we do to deal with something disturbing, and it’s almost automatic.

But views about the homeless aren’t as cut and dried as one study. Claudia Cuchia says she and her husband have hired a homeless man to do odd jobs for their real estate company. She also chats with people at the encampments. But what she resents is what she considers bad life choices.

“What I care about is them and their behavior. ... All their trash and filth and the human waste and the needles – they’re outside of the norms and they don’t care that they’re outside the norms,” Cuchia says.

Credit Courtesy SEARCH Homeless Services
Otha Norton visits a man, who asked not to be identified by name, who lives in one of Houston's homeless encampments. Norton was there in January as part of his job as an outreach specialist with SEARCH Homeless Services.

Otha Norton is someone whom Cuchia might have thought was “outside the norm” at one point in his life. He was homeless in Houston after being incarcerated for 11 years. But that was about 15 years ago. Today, he’s about to finish his master’s degree in social work. And he also works with the homeless in Houston to get them back on their feet. But before all that, he says he felt written off, as a homeless man.

“I went into a Burger King and it was like 101 [degrees] outside and I just wanted a glass of water. And they said, ‘No,’ you know, and, ‘Get away from my customers! Don’t ask my customers for anything!’” Norton says.

At one point, Norton thought it would have been better to be dead or just go back to jail.

“I couldn’t get my foot in the door anywhere. Everyone was looking at me – you’re African American, you’re a felon, you’re a statistic. I couldn’t get a job," Norton says.

He was homeless for two years after he left prison.

But from Claudia Cuchia’s point of view, everybody’s had difficulties.

“You don’t get out of this life without trauma, how about that? … Anything that’s [happened to] anybody that’s been on the street, I’ve been there. I’ve done drugs, I’ve been a battered woman, I’ve been uneducated and not been able to find a job … so I know how hard it is,” Cuchia says.

She admits she can’t understand what it’s like to be a person of color or to have been in prison, and to also be homeless. But she says she grew up poor and was still able to make a life for herself. For her, it’s all about making an effort. And she still sees America as a place where you can succeed if you have the will.

And this impasse goes directly to the heart of John Jost’s research at NYU. He says witnessing homelessness can bring up personal pain for people, especially if it reminds them of their own problems. And sometimes that makes them hold onto their beliefs even tighter.

“It might help to think that some of our responses are defensive … to recognize that on some level it could be painful for us for a number of reasons,” Jost says.

Homelessness can reveal cracks in the economic system that Cuchia puts a lot of faith into. She says it’s an even playing field; the most fair in the world.

But Jost says capitalism wasn’t really designed to be fair.

“The biggest defenders of capitalism in the early days were not making the argument that it was a fair system; they were making the argument that it’s an efficient system. … Capitalism is a great mechanism for creating wealth and a pretty terrible one for distributing it,” Jost says.

Gary King once put all his faith in capitalism. He actually used to call himself a “cold-hearted capitalist.” But that’s changed a bit since he volunteered to be a mentor at SEARCH Homeless Services in Houston. That experience showed King how complicated it was to be homeless.

“It’s just sort of trying to transport yourself and put yourself in their shoes, and challenge yourself on how you would survive. … It’s incredibly difficult in our society to claw yourself back out of that," King says.

King works in the energy industry as an insurance executive. He used to think he could write a check to a homeless organization and move on with his life. Now, after volunteering, he says it’s unrealistic to think that someone can get out of homelessness without a reliable, supportive community.

“Hearing some of the stories … really shook me to the core. It made me realize that we, as a society, don’t really have that much of a safety net,” he says.

For Austin’s homeless, that “net” is a state-sanctioned camp east of town. It’s a large, empty lot that was used for state vehicle maintenance. But, now, it might become the location of a permanent shelter. Residents there who don’t want that are organizing, and hope to one day buy land of their own, for a permanent camp.

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