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Can happen to anyone? Yes. Equally likely? No.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick of Heriot-Watt university has written a quietly important article for the London School of Economics (LSE) blog: “Can homelessness happen to anyone? Don’t believe the hype”.

She writes,

The idea, then, that ‘we are all only two pay cheques away from homelessness’ is a seriously misleading statement. But some may say that the truth (or falsity) of such a statement is beside the point – it helps to get the public on board and aids fundraising. Maybe that’s true (I haven’t seen any evidence either way). But myths like these become dangerous when they are repeated so often that those who ought to, and need to, know better start to believe them. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard senior figures from government and the homelessness sector rehearse the ‘it could happen to any of us’ line. This has to be called out for the nonsense it is, so that we can move on to design the sort of effective, long-term preventative interventions in homelessness that recognise its predictable yet far from inevitable nature.

This caught my attention. A couple of years ago I wrote:

Yet it is possible to acknowledge the right of those put up these spikes to do so, and also have sympathy with the homeless. Ms Borromeo’s statement that “anyone, for any reason, could end up on the streets with no home” is the usual hyperbole (she need not worry about the chances of it happening to her), but it is true that things can go wrong for a person with surprising speed. There is probably at least one of your classmates from primary school who has lost everything, usually via drugs or alcohol.

And way before that, so far back that my blog post about it is lost in the waste of words, I had noticed well-meaning posters on the London Underground that stated that “wife-beating”, as it was then called, can happen to women of any class and any level of education. What is wrong with that? It is true, isn’t it? Undeniably, but “can happen” is very different from “equally likely to happen”, and if efforts to stop violence against women from their partners are equally spread across all demographics then fewer women will be helped than if resources are targeted to those most at risk.

Suzanne Fitzpatrick’s piece also gives another reason why framing the appeal in terms of “it can happen to anyone” is not a good idea:

On a slightly different note, the repetition of this falsehood seems to me to signal a profoundly depressing state of affairs i.e. that that we feel the need to endorse the morally dubious stance that something ‘bad’ like homelessness only matters if it could happen to you. Are we really ready to concede that social justice, or even simple compassion, no longer has any purchase in the public conscience? Moreover, it strikes me as a very odd corner for those of a progressive bent to deny the existence of structural inequalities, which is exactly what the ‘two paycheques’ argument does.

I might disagree with what seem to be Professor Fitzpatrick’s views on social justice and structural inequalities, but she is right about the morally dubious nature of the stance that “something ‘bad’ like homelessness only matters if it could happen to you”.

On similar grounds, I think it is a fool’s errand to try and promote a non-racial patriotism by claims that “Britain has always been a nation of immigrants” or by exaggerating the number of black people who lived here centuries ago. I am all for non-racial patriotism, but, sorry, no. The arrival of a few tens of thousands of Huguenots or Jews did not equate to the mass immigration of the last few decades. The migrations into Britain that were comparable in scale to that were invasions. And while there were certainly some “Aethiopians” and “blackamoores” living here in Tudor times, for instance, their numbers were so low that to most of the white inhabitants they were a wonder.

For those that know their history, to read the line “Britain has always been a nation of immigrants” promotes scorn. When those who at first did not know the facts finally find them out, their reaction is cynicism. Worse yet, this slogan suggests that love of country for a black or ethnic minority Briton should depend on irrelevancies such as whether the borders were continually porous through many centuries, or on whether people ethnically similar them happen to have been here since time immemorial. (The latter idea is another “very odd corner” for progressives to have painted themselves into.) If either of these claims turns out to be false, what then?

Better to learn from the example of the Huguenots and Jews. Whether any “people like them” had come before might be an interesting question for historians (and a complex one in the case of the Jews), but whatever the answer, they became British anyway.

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42 comments to Can happen to anyone? Yes. Equally likely? No.

  • Lee Moore

    I recall a public health advertisement several years ago, which went something like :

    “HEPATITIS C HAS NO FAVOURITES – WE’RE ALL AT RISK

    ALL IT TAKES IS ONE SHARED NEEDLE”

  • NickM

    Well, I have once been a single paycheck away once… But I know I had me mum… Awkward, yes. Better than being buggered on the back streets of Manchester, yes!!! I guess it’s called the “network” which most of us at some point rely on. And sometimes they rely on us. I think it is called “civil society”. Obviously if you are a complete and utter cunt then you will end-up dropping your pants for food.

    But then I’m not gonna go down the street with a placard for “Complete and utter cunts” now am I?

  • Surellin

    The Five Rules of Success: 1). Get an education, 2). Get a job, 3). Keep a job, 4). Get married, 5). Stay married. If you can do those things, your chances of hitting bottom are small, even if your education is rudimentary and your job sad. Building up social capital by keeping on the good side of your neighbors and relatives and the nice people at church is a good idea too. In short, think like your grandparents.

  • Lee Moore

    The Five Rules of Success: 1). Get an education, 2). Get a job, 3). Keep a job, 4). Get married, 5). Stay married.

    I think if you’re a girl these’ll do fine. But if you’re a chap then you need to buy 4) and 5) as a job lot, otherwise it can get very expensive. Unfortunately as 4) and 5) are only ever sold separately, the best policy for a chap (financially) is to stop at 3).

  • The Five Rules of Success: … If you can do those things, your chances of hitting bottom are small, even if your education is rudimentary and your job sad.

    Those aren’t rules of Success, then; they’re rules for not “hitting bottom”.
    It’s a nontrivial distinction, because most strategies for success in any venture more complicated than “staying alive” have a fair risk of failure — that is, a high chance of hitting bottom.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Another downside to the “it can happen to anyone” meme is it’s sister meme, “it can be done by anyone”; we are not only all potentially homeless, we are also all potentially axe murderers. Thus, law that leaves no one alone, and always presumes the worst case.

  • PapayaSF

    See also: “Anyone can get AIDS.”

  • bobby b

    “ALL IT TAKES IS ONE SHARED NEEDLE””

    Well, who among us hasn’t faced that hard, hard choice when our own needle is mislaid and we either accept the offer of another by the scabrous fellow in the alley next to us or start jonesing right there on the spot?

    (That’s the problem with “it can happen to any of us” appeals. We hear it constantly, and then we notice that it doesn’t happen to any of us absent either mental illness or notably bad choices, and we become hardened against, not the homeless or the addicts, but their exaggerating advocates, which results in less help.)

  • I sneeze in threes

    NickM,

    “Obviously if you are a complete and utter cunt then you will end-up dropping your pants for food”, well it can happen to even the best of us.

    http://blackadderquotes.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Blackadder-2-Money-get-it-here.jpg

  • CaptDMO

    Win the lottery, solve ALL your problems!
    Well, technically, it COULD happen to ANY of us.
    But, you know, unless you REGULARLY buy INTO the tax on stupidity, because….
    “You have to be in it, to win it!!!!!”
    Semi-unrelated: In the US, (ie) two well known areas used to be quite prosperous,VERY low crime, neighborhoods, where folks did OK.
    Harlem, and Compton.

  • Bilwick

    I’m neither a drunk nor a junkies, but I have been close to homelessness a couple of times, most recently and most threateningly when, almost simultaneously, I lost my job and my home. The one-two punch was the result of massive downsizing at the company I was working for, and the landlord of the place where I was living selling the property so it could be turned into a parking lot for a near-by charter school with a lot of taxpayer money to spend. At the same time the city where I live had been undergoing a massive change from the low-rent semi-slum it had once been to an increasingly Yuppified high-rent collection of luxury townhouses and McMansions. I barely escaped homelessness when, by luck, a friend found me one of the few remaining moderate-income apartments left in a decent neighborhood. (There are still plenty of low-rent apartments, but they’re in slums where a Caucasian like me might as well wear a bull’s eye on his back.) If my current landlord gets an attractive e enough offer for his land, I’ll be up Feces Creek.

  • Jamesg

    Unless you work for a small company that could go bankrupt it’s almost impossible to lose your job.

    At most places so long as you remember to go to the doctor to get a piece of paper with the word depression on it you can string out complete indolence for at least a couple of years. Punctuate that with stringing together a few months of turning up and you can make an entire career out of worklessness.

    The only people who truly f-up are those who derive a pleasure out of playing no games at all.

  • Paul Marks

    Genetically non Anglo-Saxon or Norse people were rare in England when I was born – most people were Anglo Saxons or Norse (genetically it is hard to tell the difference). Although there are some oddities – perhaps that most English of counties, Devon, is actually genetically mostly Celtic (the people changed their language and culture – and forget they had ever been anything other than English).

    So “nation of immigrants” in the sense of people like my family (I am part Jewish and part Irish – although the Irish name “Power” is actually Norman, and I may even have some Anglo-Saxon in me, it-gets-complicated) – errr no, not till recently. After all the Anglo Saxons have been on this island for 15 centuries – so “immigrants” will not really do.

    Can someone who is not an Anglo Saxon, someone like me, be English? Well some people would say “no” – but that would seem to exclude (for example) Devon – a lot of famous “Englshmen” from Devon (and Cornwall and so on) do people really want to exclude them? Especially as they have been on this island longer than the Anglo Saxons.

    Homelessness – in my home town it is associated with substance abuse and mental illness. The local council will find somewhere for a local person to live, unless that person just messes up all the help they are given (or can not understand the concept of help).

    Since “care in the community” a lot of people who would have been in homes for the mentally ill, now sleep on the streets. It is not good for them – or for other people around them.

  • The “It could happen to anyone” spin – specifically, the concealment and/or denial that it is very far from equally likely to happen to members of certain categories as against others – is an unavoidable corollary of PC.

    – If an unhappy outcome can be represented as caused by prejudice, you never hear “it could happen to anyone”: au contraire, “it” happens to members of minority groups victimised by society’s unjust prejudices.

    – When the “it” looks more like the result of either its victim’s bad choices or their membership of a group where perpetrators of “it” abound, then we hear that “It could happen to anyone.”

    When all cultures deserve equal respect and the UK’s native culture deserves all the blame for any lack thereof, statistical thinking is so not wanted.

  • Myno

    Nanny State + Helicopter Parenting Culture = Skinner Box World

  • Alan Peakall

    The common pattern of the arguments being criticised here is what I call “moralistic epistemology” – the proponent has ceased to ask “Is this true(false)?” and instead asks “Am I the sort of person who could doubt(believe) this?”.

  • bobby b

    “Unless you work for a small company that could go bankrupt it’s almost impossible to lose your job.”

    It’s not all rosy times in the Fortune 500 companies, though.

    Most of the people I know who have lost jobs (not counting performance issues) lost them through mergers of huge companies, restructurings of huge departments, “changes of direction” in huge companies, new directors bringing in their buddies, and the like. It gets dicier the higher you go in these companies, too – you can become too narrowly specialized in a large company – they can afford to have one guy who handles nothing but police misconduct lawsuits venued in Micronesia – and then find that, when your position goes away, your job market is correspondingly narrow.

  • bobby b

    CaptDMO
    July 14, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    In the US, (ie) two well known areas used to be quite prosperous,VERY low crime, neighborhoods, where folks did OK.

    Harlem, and Compton.

    Ah, memories . . . I grew up in Compton. Kids running all over, friendly people that would give you the shirt off their backs, neighborhood fish-fries whenever anybody caught enough barracuda off the pier at Redondo. I was the white kid. We used to play “la Migra” in the concrete river when it was dry. But . . . prosperous? $$ enough for rent, but nobody owned cars.

  • patriarchal landmine

    one thing I have noticed about homeless men is that they had to be carefully and repeatedly ground down into the dirt for them to end up homeless. a whole family turned their back, the legal system came down on them like a ton of bricks because they obeyed the law, and lies were believed in court.

    which is also why men make up the vast majority of homeless. we are always disposable, and there will always be another son to take our place.

  • Brian Swisher

    I am a scion of those Huguenots that fled the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Went to Northumberland, and then to Ireland at about the time Jimmy II/VII got the boot and King Billy got the call to come on over.

  • Lee Moore

    And talking of Huguenots, I recall in a prior “nation of immigrants” discussion a while ago in another place, being confronted with the alleged statistic that one quarter of the inhabitants of the UK have Huguenot ancestry. Stipulating the truth of this for the sake of argument, it is about a minute’s work to compute that over the 16 or so generations we’ve had since they started arriving here, we have each managed to accumulate 65,536 ancestors of the requisite vintage.

    Of course some of these will be duplicates, and there will not have been anything like perfect mixing, but even generously adjusting for this, the average Briton has at least a thousand times as many non Huguenot ancestors as Huguenot ones. Which puts the scale of the tide of Huguenot immigration in perspective.

  • the legal system came down on them like a ton of bricks because they obeyed the law, and lies were believed in court.
    I don’t disbelieve you, but could you furnish us with an example?

  • staghounds

    If no one were ever homeless, where would we get all these lovely immigrants?

  • Jacob

    Anyone can become (God forbid) ill, can suffer from some chronic and debilitating disease, or can become mentally ill, or can suffer an accident or another external catastrophe.

  • Ferox

    Life is gonna kick you in the nuts, guaranteed. Whether you are white or black, male or female, rich or poor, life is coming to mess up your sh*t.

    So if you aren’t saving your money for that inevitable rainy day, then you ARE responsible for the ensuing calamity you suffer. I hear this argument all the time: “I had a good job, summer beach house, two cars, kids went to camp and private school, and then I got sick and lost it all. I went bankrupt because of an illness.” No, you went bankrupt because you are an improvident fool.

    Here are my rules for not being homeless. They are so simple that almost nobody can follow them 😉

    1) Stay employed, even if that means working crap minimum wage jobs. You are never too good for ANY paid labor; take what you can get.
    2) Live well within your means, at all times. You don’t NEED cable; you don’t NEED a car; you don’t NEED to go out to eat. If you can afford those things, fine. If not, get rid of them. At the low end, you can live in a cheap crappy apartment, eat rice, and read books from the library, for next to nothing.
    3) Don’t make stupid decisions like using addictive drugs, or playing the various lotteries, or buying new cars. Those are bad choices that will lead you to disaster.
    4) Save your money like calamity is actively stalking you … because it surely is. In your fat years, you should be saving half your income (or more!).

    Follow my rules and your chances of being homeless are virtually nil. But then you will have to listen to others lecture you on how “lucky” you have been, and how “privileged” you are.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Anyone who is not a black African native living in Kenya is, ancestrally at least, ‘an immigrant’. And not all of the black Africans even in Kenya, or those living very far from the Olduvai Gorge. 😛

  • When the fat years come, I will surely save. Until then, I will save ‘social capital’ by helping my family and friends in non-monetary ways in case I ever need a favour in return.

    Personfromporlock: did I not read recently of some fossil discovered that sheds doubt on the Out Of Africa theory?

  • Bilwick

    “‘Unless you work for a small company that could go bankrupt it’s almost impossible to lose your job.’

    “It’s not all rosy times in the Fortune 500 companies, though.”

    Indeed. See my post above. The company I was working for was a Fortune 500 company, and I was among 300 other people downsized out of our jobs. As I’ve written, this happened about the time I was losing my home, and almost no landlords would rent to me because I was unemployed. I just lucked out when a friend found a landlord who was willing to take a chance on me.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . almost no landlords would rent to me because I was unemployed.”

    Here’s a tip for the future that I was taught long ago.

    You are never unemployed.

    You are self-employed. You are using whatever skill or experience you have and you are working independently for clients on a contracted basis. Maybe legal work, maybe plumbing jobs, maybe lawn care . . . whatever it is that you can do.

    It’s very hard for them to check on this. It’s not as foolproof as actually being employed, but it beats the heck out of telling them you’re unemployed.

  • Lee Moore

    Ferox’s advice is very foolish. If you skimp and save, the social will take your pile of savings into account and dock your benefits when you fall on hard times. You would do much better to spend everything (and then some on credit) and have a good time. When hard times come, you will be no worse off than Ferox.

  • Ferox

    Moral hazard vs. Stein’s law.

    The solution, of course, is not to rely or even expect benefits from “social”. Be self-reliant, assume that the government is going to screw you, and don’t put all your weight on their lifeline. Have one of your own.

    For example, I have been paying into social security my entire life. But I have zero expectation of getting a penny of it back, ever.

    If I do get a check one day, for whatever amount, I will be pleasantly surprised. However, I would not bet my dinner on it.

    So when the really hard times come, and (for example) the state can no longer cover its exorbitant pension promises, those of us who took care of our own pensions will not be on the sinking ship.

  • Patrick Crozier (Twickenham)

    “Genetically non Anglo-Saxon or Norse people were rare in England when I was born…”

    My understanding is that when DNA testing became possible they found that most of us (Britons) are in fact Celts.

  • Lee Moore

    So when the really hard times come, and (for example) the state can no longer cover its exorbitant pension promises, those of us who took care of our own pensions will not be on the sinking ship.

    Au contraire, mon ami. The government will just mug you for your savings, and then place you on the sinking ship as a “benefit.”

    I advise keeping bees. Honey keeps forever. And thieves and vandals may be deterred by the stings.

  • I agree with both Ferox and Lee Moore – if that is possible. Ferox is right to save – and to think it leaves him better placed to deal with any problems in his future. Lee is right to note that as the government runs out of money it may well steal (even more) from whoever has any (except some very rich crony-connected types), either by taxing or by inflating the currency a la post-WWI Germany or whatever. But Ferox has control of his assets today and can place them accordingly – in bees if he wishes, but there are other options.

  • Jacob

    All the savings of all people have already been spent, by the Government, three times over.
    All people, rich and poor, now depend on the Government money printing press.

  • Rich Rostrom

    “The arrival of a few tens of thousands of Huguenots or Jews did not equate to the mass immigration of the last few decades.”

    Recently, I had an exchange with a Dutchman who asserted that recent immigration to the Netherlands shouldn’t be a problem: the Golden Age of the Netherlands came just after an influx of immigrants. Said Golden Age being the 17th century, and said influx being Protestants fleeing Spanish-ruled Flanders.

    There are none so blind as those who are fanatically determined not to see.

  • Magnocrat

    Its a harmless form of advertising used even when the likelihood of such an event is infinitesimally small. It could be you winning the National Lottery; of course almost anything is possible no one knows the future.
    Having won millions I could turn round and say: I told you so millions to one chances do occur.

  • Rob Fisher

    “those of us who took care of our own pensions will not be on the sinking ship” — well there are limits to how protected you can be. The state can still destroy and steal everything, including inflating away savings. Physical assets like houses might be a good hedge, assuming property rights are intact enough.

  • Mr Ed

    Physical assets like houses might be a good hedge, assuming property rights are intact enough.

    They’d just introduce a civilianised form of billeting to cope with the ‘housing shortage’.

  • Lee Moore

    Seriously though, if you want to protect your savings from government confiscation, you have to diversify between governments – ie not have all your assets within the reach of one government.

    (Reasons to leave the EU – No. 8,463)