A Practical Case Study in Standing on the Side of Love

Conventional liberal approaches to homelessness have been practiced for decades -- since the beginning of the present housing crisis in the 80's when the emerging rightwing hegemony over policy dismantled public housing programs and cut community based mental health programs as too costly. 

Homeless people and families were provided social services, and as they proved that they were ready, they became eligible for subsidized housing programs.  The policy was driven by mercy, but also by the fear of a moral hazard. The fear is that if help is given to the undeserving poor; the help will reward socially undesirable behavior. The fear is that social policies will create dangerous temptations by being too generous. 

Housing FIrst breaks with the fear of the moral hazard. In cities that are implementing "Housing First," chronically homeless people, as they are, are given keys to apartments. They don't have to get sober; they didn't have to get mental health treatment and be stable. Mercy, so to speak, is unconditional. Surprise, formerly homeless people will deal with their underlying issues when they have a home, an address, and a more secure living situation. Doesn't that make sense? It's easier to solve real problems when you have a roof over head than when you sleeping in the alley.  It even costs less, which is not the point, but interesting. 

The opposite of love is indifference. The old policies were based on the threat of indifference. If you, a homeless person, don't shape up, the rest of us will be indifferent to your situation. You can sleep in the alley for all we care. All social policies that reflect some sort of "tough love" threaten indifference, the conscious withholding of resources or support, as a punishment for not doing the "right thing" or exercising your "personal responsibility." 

Love is engaged caring. It's tactic is not withholding, but caring. It is meeting people where they are and helping them with the resources to address their most pressing problems. 

The present rightwing ideology that still shapes public policy in this country (despite being a minority political position) is based on withholding assistance in order to force  people to "exercise their personal responsibility."  We've cut unemployment benefits, "reformed Welfare", reduced food stamps, restricted Medicaid, let the banks profit on the education of the young. We now face a retirement crisis that is the direct result of such "tough love" policies. Social Security benefits have been kept low in order to make sure the workers save enough for their retirement.  They think that we must avoid the moral hazard of letting people think that they will have secure retirement no matter what. 

When religious liberals say that we are standing on the side of love, I believe that we are calling for the institutionalization of love as the basis of social policies.  Social policies should work on the basis of engaged caring that meets people where they are. Our social programs should not threaten to withhold resources to force bahavioral  changes.

If that seems too abstract, or pollyannish, to explain to your friends and family, point to the example of Housing First. 


  1. Hear, hear! As long as I live I will never, ever apologize to the "sensible" a-holes for being THIS kind of liberal.

  2. I'm not sure if this is directly responsive to your piece, but I'm glad to see a focus on class and economics. While I think that most of us (meaning UUs or perhaps just readers of this blog) come down on the same side as you, I also feel like that same majority also find it easier to talk about marriage equality or climate change than unemployment benefits or the role of unions. The latter group of issues are, admittedly, more nuanced -- being in favor of generous unemployment benefits doesn't answer the question of how much those benefits should be or how long they should be offered. That said, those issues affect a vast number of people in the here and now, and in my mind are crucial to building broader alliances.


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