Should the Homeless Be Forcibly Helped? [2018]

When are we morally obligated as a society to help the homeless, and is coercive interference justified when help is not asked for, even refused? To answer this question, we propose a comprehensive taxonomy of different types of homelessness and argue that different levels of autonomy allow for interventions with varying degrees of pressure to accept help. There are only two categories, however, where paternalism proper is allowed, be it heavily qualified. The first case is the homeless person with severely diminished autonomy as a result of mental illness, and the second case is the homeless person who runs a risk of serious and imminent harm to self. In the first case, namely, that of soft paternalism, we argue that coercive intervention in the case of a refusal to accept help should be focused on the provision of housing that meets basic needs—needs that we outline in the article. In the case of imminent and severe harm to self, the case of hard paternalism, we argue that forced intervention can only be allowed if it is temporary and local, namely focused on getting someone out of harm’s way.

Bart van Leeuwen Michael S Merry
Public Health Ethics, Volume 12, Issue 1, 1 April 2019