Why We Need the Homeless

IMG_8941As Phillip Lopate points out, perverse humor and contrariness can help us break through our ingrained ways of thinking, can help us view emotionally charged problems in our world through a more constructive lens. With that in mind, here’s why we need homelessness, why we shouldn’t be trying to end or reduce homelessness at all, but rather encouraging it.

Homelessness is good for individuals because it provides an education in life not available by other means. If you’re young and homeless and have a sense of adventure, you can travel around the country in a Jack Kerouac sort of way, get to see more cities and small towns and different ways of living than you’d ever be able to do if you were not homeless and if you were working full-time to try and stay not homeless. We should encourage homelessness in our young people, as it would increase their civic and geographic literacy and help us avoid the high cost of a college education.

Homelessness is good for our society. First, it is good for the environment because people who are homeless often recycle things. They find discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles in ditches beside streets and turn them in to recycling places in exchange for money. Homelessness is good for the environment because people who are homeless often leave very small carbon footprints: they usually don’t own cars, or if they do, they can’t afford the gas to drive them so they rely on public transportation, ride bicycles or skateboards (if they are young), or simply walk to where they need to go. They eat leftover food that would otherwise go to waste and have to be carted off in garbage trucks and take up space in land fills. This especially applies to all of those excess Starbucks pastries that have to be thrown away at the end of each day. Homeless people don’t use much electricity, especially if they live outside, and even if they stay in public or church-run shelters, the cost per person of heating or cooling the shelter area is quite cost-effective.

Homelessness is good for the economy because our US market economy is based on winners and losers, the wealthy and the poor: having people who are homeless on our streets—so visibly down and out and poor—reminds us that our economy is working. It reminds us on a personal level that we had better keep working or we will end up like them: homeless. It’s a good moral lesson for our children when they are lazy at school. We can point out a homeless person and say: “See—that’s what you’ll become if you don’t study harder!” Homelessness is good for the economy because, like migrant farm workers, many homeless people do day labor, such as construction or yard work, for very low wages. This enables businesses to turn a higher profit.

Homelessness creates jobs for people, especially jobs in public health and social work, as well as jobs for journalists and researchers who focus on homelessness. Homelessness and poverty support health care providers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals who are incompetent or impaired, and who wouldn’t be tolerated in care settings for affluent persons. People who are homeless—along with other poor people—help support medical innovation, since many of them serve as patients and research subjects in academic medical centers. Of course, these medical innovations mainly benefit affluent people who can afford health insurance to cover the cost of such innovations.

Please support homelessness. Our country needs more of it.


From my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 2016).

Note: For this piece I was influenced by Herbert Gans’s article “The Positive Functions of Poverty” in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 78, No. 2, September 1972) and by Joel John Robert’s article “Ten Things We Can Do to Perpetuate Homelessness,” published in the Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2003).

Nursing Ambivalence

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg, 1839. (Neue P...
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As Phillip Lopate says, “If you have ambivalence, you already have two paragraphs.”

I have always been ambivalent about nursing: more than two paragraphs worth of ambivalence. There have been numerous times in my life when I have listed out the pros and cons of nursing. It started, of course, when I first began contemplating nursing as a viable career option, when I found myself a Harvard graduate school dropout and without job prospects. My ambivalence accelerated greatly while I was in nursing school: I despised nursing school and almost flunked out until I got to the graduate nursing school part where people—and their testing methods—were somewhat saner. It has continued throughout my 27 years as a nurse. The unexamined life is not worth living. Unexamined nursing is not worth doing.

Recently, my ambivalence about nursing increased. I sought career counseling with an excellent expert in this area. Three sessions and five standardized career tests later, her conclusion was that I have neither the aptitude nor the personality to be a nurse. According to the test results and her interpretation of them, I was meant to be an artist—an activist artist to be precise. My mother, who was an artist, turned over in her grave with this news. As I spent a lot of hard-earned money on the career counseling, I decided to take it seriously. But with a son in graduate school, I have no intention of chucking nursing to become a starving artist. So I am back to sorting out the pros and cons of nursing.

Here’s my current list, in no particular order.

Positives of nursing: I like nursing’s emphasis on caring vs. curing. I like the down-to-earth, no-nonsense aspect of it—the dirtiness and realness of it as opposed to the loftier, detached way that doctoring can have. I especially like public health/community nursing, working with underserved populations where they live. I like that nursing is generally closer socio-economically to “real” people than is medicine. Solidarity can ward off disdain. I like the diversity of working opportunities—the range of what you can do with a nursing degree. I like that it is easier to move into various different jobs and roles and even to get out of working as a nurse, and still have the nursing part inform other work. I like that nursing is generally well regarded by the public—at least in terms of trustworthiness. I like that it requires less time and money to become a nurse (compared with becoming a physician).

Negatives of nursing: There are too many women in nursing: cat fights, back-stabbing, high school-type bullying gossip (and yes, even in nursing education). Too much estrogen is not a healthy thing. We need more men in nursing for so many reasons. I don’t like the sanctimonious, dogmatic, missionary, religious, preachy, bossy ways of nursing. I don’t like the Pollyanna-propensity of nursing. I don’t like the servant role it assumes in reference to physicians and even to patients—the self-effacing, self-sacrificing, subservient way of nursing. I dislike this more than I do the sexy naughty nurse/angel in white motif (Not politically correct, but I also see the humor in these—a future blog post topic). I think I am enough of a feminist to see through these gendered stereotypes. But I am also enough of a feminist to recognize that traditional female roles are not something to reject out of hand—that it is possible to be a feminist nurse, just as it is possible to be a feminist mother, or a feminist teacher, or a feminist flight attendant. I don’t like the anti-intellectualism of much of nursing. I dislike the dominant discourse/narrative within nursing of whining victim—the inferiority complex. I dislike that nursing has developed its identity around the medical model, that it compares itself to and tries to differentiate itself from the physician role. This can lead to some bizarre and flakey things like nursing care plans, nursing diagnoses (“alteration in bowel elimination” instead of “diarrhea” anyone?), and therapeutic touch. It also has reinforced an emphasis on hospital-based nursing, and the rigid health care hierarchy inherent in that factory type model—keeping nurses in the ‘functional doer’ role.

For me, measured in sheer number of words in my lists, the cons of nursing win.

Early in my career as a nurse practitioner, I interviewed for a job with a crusty but astute psychiatrist, an expert in substance abuse disorders at a public east-coast university hospital. He interviewed me three times over the course of more than a month. I didn’t get the job and I couldn’t figure out why. A physician friend of mine who worked with the psychiatrist told me he’d concluded, “She’s not enough of a nurse to be a nurse practitioner.” It hurt my feelings at the time, and is a rankling statement that has stayed with me over the years. At the time, I thought he meant that I hadn’t been a nurse long enough to merit becoming a nurse practitioner. I was overly sensitive to that sort of thing since I had gone straight through nursing school to become a nurse practitioner. It was the only type of nurse I wanted to be—but I caught flack for it by other nurse practitioners, other nurses, and physicians. It wasn’t as common a track as it is now, although my accelerated nursing program students tell me they still get hassled about their lack of experience as nurses. But now I am wondering if what the psychiatrist really meant was that I did not have the personality of a nurse—that I was too ambivalent about nursing in general—to make a good nurse for his research project.

And the irony, of course, is that I teach nursing. Luckily, I have yet to be asked to teach any courses that require nursing care plans, nursing diagnoses, or therapeutic touch. As with teaching nursing research, I’d have to decline. I’d rather be a starving artist.