Sociology

The Physics of Homelessness



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"The Physics of Homelessness"
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In April of 2004, social psychologist Robert Levine of Fresno State distributed a questionnaire to a group of homeless/drug dependent people in Fresno, California. Among the questions Levine asked were two that are of particular interest. The first question: DO YOU WANT TO REMAIN HOMELESS IN THE FUTURE? To this question 100% of those responding answered DEFINITELY NOT. The second question asked: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN HOMELESS (IN YEARS)? To this question more than 3 out of 4 (76.3%) answered that they had been homeless for more than a year. 17.4%, in fact, had been homeless for between two and five years. Within the answers to these two questions there lies a troubling inconsistency.
Assuming that the homeless/drug dependent person was sincere in response to the first question, how can we explain the answers to the second question? Would it not seem logical that if a person truly wanted to end his homelessness (and a certain degree of motivation was present to do so), that sometime within the space of a year (or two years, or five years) an opportunity to get off the street would have presented itself?
There is a law of Physics which states: A BODY IN MOTION TENDS TO STAY IN MOTION. A BODY AT REST TENDS TO STAY AT REST. There is a process called EQUILIBRIUM. One of the dictionary definitions of equilibrium reads: A STATE OF REST OR BALANCE DUE TO THE EQUAL ACTION OF TWO OPPOSING FORCES. Basically stated, equilibrium is a form of stasis, a structure at rest, in a state of stagnation. Equilibrium affects biological processes and social structures of an infinite variety. In biological structures, such as cell structures, or in social structures, when equilibrium does not lead to growth, it is almost always seen as a precursor to collapse or death. GROW OR DIE seems to be a biological imperative.
There is in Cybernetics an obscure but important law, THE LAW OF REQUISITE VARIETY, which states that the survival of any system depends on its ability to cultivate (not just tolerate) variety in its internal structure. Failure to do so results in an inability to cope successfully with the environment. Coping mechanisms that have grown atrophied during periods of stagnation prove inadequate when presented with new challenges.
Abe Maslow in his book "Farther Reaches of Human Nature" (Viking Books, N.Y., l971), points out the importance of just this type of cultivating ability in the growth process: "It is quite clear that we must teach people to be creative persons, at least in the sense of being able to confront novelty, to improvise. They must not be afraid of change but rather must be able to be comfortable with change and novelty, and if possible (because best of all) even be able to enjoy novelty and change."
Can a homeless/drug dependent person's lifestyle dysfunction be looked at in the same way we look at biological processes or social structures? Could processes such as equilibrium, entropy (a loss of energy over time due to equilibrium), and the Law of Requisite Variety, explain the seeming inconsistency in the two questions Robert Levine asked? Is it possible that a homeless/drug dependent person can be viewed as a "body at rest", in a state of social stagnation in which he is responding to a certain level of comfort and familiarity? Can prolonged equilibrium and insufficient variety in a person's day to day life and social interactions leading to an atrophying of a person's coping mechanisms in the face of new challenges be contributing factors to chronic homelessness and drug dependence?
A 2004 study done at the University of Texas (Austin) shows that apathy is a very real factor in homelessness. The longer a person remains homeless the greater the apathy experienced by the homeless person. In addition, the social institutions (drop-in centers, missions, social services, etc.) which are set up to help the homeless, in reality add to the state of learned helplessness and apathy that a homeless person experiences. A person does not have to be homeless for very long for apathy and learned helplessness to become factors. The study shows that as short a time as one week to one month may be enough time for apathy to become a factor in a person's inability to cope, for an already present feeling of learned helplessness to become worse.
In self-organizing systems (such as a human being) the events and fluctuations that challenge the status quo (equilibrium) are, in fact, the most useful to the organism's evolution, an important part of the growth process. Equilibrium may be seen as being not so far removed from the process of addiction. In fact the underlying processes (isolation and separation) are often indistinguishable and the results the same-disconnection from essential purposes, passions and challenges.
For a person immersed in a state of equilibrium, or stagnation, new learning and proactive responses to new challenges (motivation) become difficult to generate. The longer a person remains in a state of equilibrium the more difficult it becomes to change things in any meaningful way. The process of entropy sets in.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states: IN AN ISOLATED SYSTEM NATURAL PROCESSES RESULT IN AN INCREASE IN ENTROPY. Entropy is a process that takes place in all living systems (including human beings) as equilibrium sets in. Entropy is a measure of the amount of energy no longer available for the important work of growing. The more energy it takes to maintain the status quo, the person's equilibrium, the less energy there is to move beyond the status quo. The person immersed in such a system has a difficult time in recognizing that the system is a threat because it wears the guise of an advantage. this becomes even truer when it is concealed within an environment of strong negative values and an incoherent, loosely knit social structure such as experienced by the homeless/drug dependent person.
There is a day to day sameness to life on the street that encourages this stasis, this equilibrium, a stagnation of physical and psychological coping mechanisms that offers few challenges and discourages any real form of internal growth. IN SUCH A SYSTEM IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO CHANGE ANY ONE ELEMENT OF THE SYSTEM WITHOUT CHANGING EVERY OTHER ELEMENT IN THAT SYSTEM.
While it is not being suggested that this equilibrium and stagnation can lead to the physical collapse and death of the homeless/drug dependent person, certainly it can lead to a death of the spirit. There occurs in such a state of equilibrium a spiritual stagnation as well as a numbing of the emotions, a flattening of social responses, a narrowing of options within social situations that discourages openness and encourages only the most superficial bonding with other homeless/drug dependent people and almost no connection with a world outside of the homeless/drug dependent environment.
Concepts such as equilibrium, entropy and the Law of Requisite Variety, when added to factors such as learned helplessness, poor interrelational skills and an inability to form meaningful support networks, give us an insight into the inconsistencies encountered in the questions Robert Levine asked. Without addressing all of these factors there can never be a meaningful personal transformation from homeless/drug dependent behavior to functional member of society.


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