Others are One of Us
Sometimes as children while walking through town with family my elders made comments about disheveled or unkempt strangers we passed. They said “look at that dirty old drug addict” or exclaim, “oh my gosh, how ugly” in scornful tones. My younger sister and myself would respond in a rebellious spirit. We would loudly wonder, “maybe he is dizzy and his clothes are all dirty because he just escaped a fire in his fancy research laboratory and now he is looking to catch a cab home.” My family would just answer us with a few laughs. It was difficult to hear their harsh judgements about the desperate people we saw. We felt sorry for them so we tried to recast them with a more noble and complex backstory. Now I know that my sister and I had the right idea. There is more to unhoused people than meets the eye. The stigma that society has developed around homelessness is almost as serious of a problem as poverty itself.
Many of us were taught not to judge too quickly or make assumptions about one another because those assumptions tend to be incorrect. Unfortunately, such valid advice competes with our desire to make quick decisions about the people we meet every day, even if we have ourselves experienced the consequences of a careless negative stereotype. For the most vulnerable people in our society public opinion has a powerful effect. It can be lifesaving. A recent article by Next Avenue, a journalism service focused on America’s aging baby boomer population, helps demonstrate this point. Last May Next Avenue published an article about an older woman in Los Angeles, Wanda Clarke, that became homeless after her husband died and her household income shrunk. When interviewed Clarke described the immense shame she felt about her unexpected situation. She was too humiliated to reach out to her financially stable adult children for help. She decided to struggle through her poverty and loss of housing alone.
The brief report on Clarke exposes two important issues. First, the stigma that surrounds homelessness is suffocating for unhoused people seeking help. The heartbreaking twist to Clarke’s story is that after experiencing grief and financial desperation she also became isolated by her shame. It is worth thinking carefully about why so much shame is attached to poverty and the unhoused. If our communities found homelessness and poverty unacceptable panhandlers on the street would be treated with compassion and offered real help to get back on their feet. Citizens would push for the laws to protect them. Instead we see many unhoused people get blamed for their circumstances and treated as criminals. Perhaps homelessness reminds us that there is always a chance that any of us may be swept into hardship because we know our economy and society leaves a lot of people behind. At the same time if we accept an unfair society it might make us feel a shallow boost in self-esteem to look down on the vulnerable and keep them defenseless.
The second key issue is that the people identified as unhoused are more familiar than the many harsh stereotypes suggest. Clarke was employed, part of a family, and community but was faced with common troubles. Her spouse died and she did not earn a living wage on her own. The article on Clarke includes worrying data about the cost of housing in the US rising faster than what retirees collect from Social Security. The affordability gap affects people beyond the large baby boomer population. The MacArthur Foundation recently reported that 53% of US households make serious sacrifices to keep up with either mortgage or rent payments such as cutting back in retirement savings, healthcare, healthy food, and paying credit card debt. A household struggling to make ends meet is very vulnerable when a death, health emergency, or job loss strikes. It would be wise to find out more about our homeless neighbors because we can learn how their experiences are connected to issues that affect many more in our communities.
The daily struggle to survive makes it difficult for unhoused people to get together to influence lawmakers about their needs or represent themselves to their communities. They rely on influential charities, media organizations, and neighbors around them to get their stories told. Stigmatizing unhoused people will not help us progress civilization because it makes them more helpless and misinforms the rest about what are the real problems to address. It is about time our communities take a close look at our stereotypes and get the story straight.