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Human rights should be a higher priority than hard work


By Zack Ward

Work hard and be independent. 

This is the dominant narrative in our society – that we have what we need only through hard work.

‘Americans roll up their sleeves and get the job done.’ Every speech that our Presidents give depict hard work as the most important tenet of our society. Politicians on both sides of the aisle agree. (Over-valuing hard work is not a problem unique to the U.S.; it occurs in other capitalist societies as well.) 

This narrative is at the heart of our homelessness response.

Often, the solution proposed to homelessness is to get homeless people to work harder. So many nonprofits help with resume-building, organizational skills and goal-setting, but those organizations don’t hand out jobs like candy and those jobs often don’t pay enough to afford a place to live. Even without job training, many homeless individuals already work extremely hard and, regardless, are still homeless. This recent article in the New York Times highlights a person who made over $72,000 a year, worked two jobs, and still had to live in her car. 

Along the same lines, many nonprofits try to help homeless individuals get back into education in order to rebuild their lives. 

Our first-choice solution to homelessness shouldn’t be education or jobs. Those are things to shoot for, but there is a quicker solution. That is to UNCONDITIONALLY guarantee everyone a livable apartment, healthcare and enough direct cash to pay for food.

But so many people in our country are denied this life-saving help, which is justified by the belief that, because they don’t work hard enough, they are undeserving. Providing housing without the prerequisite of hard work challenges the dominant narrative. 

The narrative that no one should ever be given a handout is detrimental to our society. If it is the quickest way to save someone’s life and/or provide them with basic human needs, then a handout should be given.

Homelessness is not a problem that we don’t know how to fix. Those in power choose not to fix it because of this narrative connecting hard work with what we need to survive and thrive.

What if everyone had a safe place to live?

Our unhoused neighbors would become our housed neighbors and, with their basic needs taken care of, could be part of our communities. Imagine a formerly homeless kid getting to play Little League. Imagine a formerly homeless adult getting to put down a real address when they register to vote, making that process so much less complicated and giving them a voice in their elected leaders.

We can build this imagined community. Working hard can feel good and be rewarding, for sure. And once a person has their basic human needs taken care of and a healthy state of mind, the sky’s the limit for how hard they can work. But in the midst of our nation’s hunger for productivity, we have forgotten to guarantee everyone’s basic human rights, which makes ours a pretty crummy society if you really think about it.

Zack Ward is a freelance contributor and a student in the strategic communication master’s program at American University hoping to work at a homelessness nonprofit upon graduation. He has written for Invisible People and helped with social media planning and content creation at StandUp for Kids, a national nonprofit focused on ending youth homelessness.