How Can We Be Minimalists In the Midst of a Homelessness Crisis?

This morning as I walked my old dog Shep, I saw a lady in a wheelchair lecturing herself. She was most likely homeless, and quite possibly a drug addict. I felt a little uncomfortable. Be honest. You probably would, too. That incident got my wheels to turning. Twenty minutes later, I came up with this question: How can we be minimalists in the midst of a homelessness crisis?

I won’t lie. I didn’t talk to the lady in the wheelchair. I didn’t try to help her in any way. In fact, I haven’t done much to help any of the hundreds of homeless people in my town. And now that I live downtown, I see the problem blaring at me clear as day.

There Are Different Kinds of Minimalists

First, not all minimalists think and act the same way. Contrary to what minimalist writers want you to think, there are different kinds of minimalists.

The snob: One who intentionally lives with less stuff, but who buys products and services that are higher priced, or “chic.” They use phrases like a “a finely-curated life,” and “I am enough.” Their focus is on minimalism as an upper-class aesthetic and style. They spend more money on the minimalist lifestyle than they will ever admit. You know how I know this? Because I once aspired to have that kind of minimalist style. I’ve done the research. It’s a rich-man’s game.

The traveler: On the other hand, others who call themselves minimalists live with barely anything so that they can travel around the world freely. They tout minimalism as a ticket to freedom. They share their adventures, making the average people green with envy through their Instagram accounts.

The natural: Next, you have the live-off-the-land and tiny-house crowd. I have a couple of good friends in this category. They’re usually just everyday people who want to live a quiet life with less rules and regulations. They often vote republican or libertarian, but some are die-hard Neo-hippies. Most are good at heart. They focus on saving money and taking care of their own.

The dabbler: Finally, there are those who just want to pare down and slow down a little. They try to keep consumerism at bay in a world of constant advertising. They try to eliminate extra commitments to have a quieter, simpler life. This would be my category if I still called myself a minimalist. However, I discovered in my own journey, that many of the minimalists in the first two categories tend to thumb their noses at the ones in this category. They claim they aren’t true minimalists because they still live closer to the average American experience. Yep, there are cliques within the church. Imagine that?

What About the Homeless?

We have a homelessness crisis in America. When I was in my 20s, I lived in or near towns that ranged from 20,000 to 100,000 people. Seattle, a major city, was a day’s drive away. Seeing a homeless person in a town of 20,000, or even 100,000, was not common. Sure, you’d see the occasional drifter or hobo type, but that was about it. Even in the big city, there was maybe 1/10 the amount of homeless people as I see today.

I currently live in downtown Yakima, Washington, a small city with a population of about 90,000. Three blocks away from my house there’s a floundering hospital where people park beat-up motorhomes, vans, and cars. They’re living in their vehicles. About ten blocks in the other direction there is a homeless camp that continues to grow. Last time I drove by, there were at least 50 people on the grass in a small park-like area. There are a couple of other similar camps in different parts of town. In Seattle, there are tent cities beneath most of the major freeways, exits, and ramps. We have a problem.

Myth: Minimalism Is a Solution to Homelessness

Occasionally, a well-meaning minimalist will discuss the idea of how minimalism could help decrease homelessness. As an idealist, I’ve probably written something similar myself. But that’s a myth. Sure, we could create some minimal housing to help reduce homelessness. But that happens at the governmental or organizational level. By personally becoming a minimalist, you’re not doing jack shit to help the homeless, unless you’re either donating or volunteering at an organization that truly helps.

Minimalism doesn’t help the homeless. It actually might create more separation and keep people from helping the homeless. Minimalism can even be oppressive. Here’s something you can imagine in any city in America:

A young, upwardly-mobile man making more than $100,000 a year chooses the minimalist lifestyle. He doesn’t buy much, but what he does buy is very expensive. He treats his home as if it were a museum, and spends money traveling to exotic places. His focus is primarily on himself as he lives a sparse yet luxurious lifestyle.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away in the same city, another man pushes his stolen shopping cart down an alley. He digs through dumpsters hoping to find something to eat, an old blanket, or an extra shirt he might wear. Talk about minimalism, this is forced minimalism. Poverty. The man has no other choice than to live with almost nothing.

Minimalism Feels Selfish to Me

There! I said it. This is something I’ve felt for the last couple of years. I’ve been focusing on simple living to such an extent that I lose focus on the real world. There are big fucking problems out there. We walk right by homelessness everyday as we rush to the store to buy another minimalist gadget. Does any one else find a single shred of irony here? I can’t be the only one.

Minimalism is solely focused on the self. It’s a self-imaged based practice. The goal may be to live with less, but the journey becomes no better than those who buy excessive amounts of stuff to impress. Sure, you might give your old unwanted crap to Goodwill. It makes you feel good. Someone with less ability to buy nice stuff will be able to use your used blender with a broken button. Woohoo! But why did you really get rid of the blender and all those old clothes and that ugly serving plate your mother-in-law gave you? Because you didn’t want that shit anymore. And because you want to have the minimalist image of living with less. You want new products that express your modern-minimalist tastes. You want to be a good minimalist. You want others to see how little you have, because less is good. It’s all about you… and me.

Some of you might think that last paragraph is a bit judgmental. Believe me when I say it’s not. It’s critical because this was exactly how I felt trying to live up to the minimalist ideal. And if this is how I felt, I’m sure there are others who feel similar. Or am I the only one here with a damn conscience and a sense of empathy? I would hope not.

I can’t do it anymore. It feels too hypocritical. This isn’t to say that I’m going to start donating half of my salary and time to homelessness. I wish I could do more, and I can. I can stop promoting a philosophy that focuses on self-image. I can start writing more honestly and openly about how we can live simply and look at the world around us with some compassion and empathy.

Live Simple and Love Others

The homelessness problem in America is of epic proportions. As individuals we can’t do much. I gave a new coat directly to a homeless guy last year, but that’s about the extent of what we can do as individuals. To solve the problem, something has to change from the top down. Unfortunately, that will only happen through politics. Fat chance, right?

In the meantime there are some things we can do:

  1. Live simple: This has been the subtitle of the Hip Diggs blog since I started in 2014. If we focus on simple living, not as an outward image, or to impress others, we are setting an example through our lives, not through our image and social-media accounts.
  2. Love others: Obviously we can’t help every homeless person we see. But we can do our best to be kind to those who have less than us. If nothing else, just pay attention to the homeless. Say hello and ask them how they’re doing. If you can, give a little money or clothing.

It’s that simple. So my question to you before I sign off of Hip Diggs forever next month, is how are you going to live? Are you going to focus on your own minimalist image? Or will you focus on living simply while noticing and offering compassion to the world around you? The choice is ours.

Remember, only four more posts here and then all of my writing will be moving over to I hope you’ll continue to follow along.

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James Ewen
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