The other day, I was out shopping with my wife and son – my father had sent him some bookstore gift cards for Christmas, so we were taking advantage of post-holiday sales. On our way in to the store, an older guy in a beat-up Army jacket got my attention and asked if I knew where the local homeless shelter was. I gave him directions to the PORT program down by the shipyard, and he thanked me profusely and said that he’d been asking for hours, and I was the first person who had even bothered to reply. We talked a little while, I gave him a visa gift card I had left over from the holidays that had five or ten bucks left on it, and told him where he could pick up a bus to the shelter.
While we were talking, a number of people passed by and gave me a look of… annoyed sympathy? ‘You’re not supposed to talk to those people, and I’m sorry you got roped into it’, that sort of thing. It was being made clear to me that I had broken the social contract by acknowledging someone that is supposed to be invisible – especially near a ‘nice’ shopping area where poor people aren’t supposed to exist at all.
Despite all our claims that America is a land of equal rights and freedom for all, despite all our grandstanding about how caste systems in other cultures are Bad and Evil, there are very clear lines between Us and Them in American culture. The dark side of the American Dream – ‘You can do anything if you try’ – is the assumption that those who can’t do something as simple as feed and shelter themselves just isn’t trying. The assumption is made that they WANT to live under a bridge and eat out of a dumpster. We justify ignoring them and not sparing them some change by convincing ourselves that they’d just spend it on drugs or booze and not food or shelter.
The problem with homeless people is that lingering second word there – ‘people’. Despite all our handwaving about how they’re a bunch of violent drug addicts who will follow you home and rob you blind if you give them the change from your frappucino, despite all the election-season hollering by politicians promising to ‘get those homeless OUT of our fair city’, despite Hollywood painting them alternately as schizophrenics or Magical Negroes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_negro), homeless people are just that – people. Sure, some are drug addicts, but most aren’t. Sure, some are violent, but most aren’t. Sure, some are homeless by choice, but the VAST MAJORITY are not. The vast majority of homeless people are far, far more similar to you and me than we are comfortable with. Just regular folks who had something happen – got laid off perhaps, got thrown out by a partner or a family member, got hurt and lost everything to medical bills – and now they can’t afford their basic needs. Yes, there are shelters and soup kitchens, but they are woefully underfunded and undermanned. I have yet to find a single place in America where the number of beds in homeless shelters exceeds or even matches the number of homeless people who need them.
I’m not asking you to donate your time and money to homeless programs in your area (though it would be nice). I’m not asking you to donate money to homeless people directly (though that, again, would be nice, and if you’re worried about it being used for drugs or booze, keep a couple $5 gift cards to grocery stores in your wallet for this purpose). All I’m asking is for you to stop treating people as invisible because their existence is threatening to your worldview. That right there, that simple change in your outlook, will go further toward ‘solving the homeless problem’ than you’d expect. It’s a lot harder to treat someone like garbage when you actually see them as a person.