Our reactions to homeless people
May 11, 2011

Our reactions to homeless people

It is quite natural to feel some sense of revulsion towards homeless people. They may be smelly, unclean, imposing on our presence and saying strange things; this kind of appearance and place in society is diametrically opposed to the ideals most of us hold for ourselves. That very sense of revulsion leads to apathy towards the often tragic situations of homeless people and blinds us from the common decency I think most people would demonstrate in different circumstances.

That there are legitimate humanitarian concerns would be intellectually acknowledged by most people. Issues like mental health disorders, drug addictions, sexual abuse and extreme poverty lead people to being homeless. These issues are issues that present homelessness as a victimization of individuals opposed to exclusively the personal failings of individuals. When presented in these terms as basic health problems or poverty, one sees that they should be aided by a modern democratic state with social safety nets.

Unfortunately, because of this sense of revulsion, most of this conversation gets pushed into the background. The victimization narrative is suppressed while the individual responsibility narrative is elevated. The sense is that homelessness is largely if not entirely their own fault and so there is little need to consider the societal factors that lead to homelessness let alone actively doing something about those factors. As this stigma sets in it becomes socially normalized to simply ignore homelessness.

Nobody likes to confront human suffering. Yet to live in a major western city is to be confronted with the reality of homelessness on a regular basis. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, we externalize the problem and consciously try to avoid any interaction, acknowledgement or even empathy for the homeless among us. Most of us - myself very much included - can walk along Bay St, the financial center of Canada, surrounded by a staggering juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty and think pretty much nothing of it outside a mild annoyance or disgust at the travesty of having to walk quickly past a beggar without making eye contact.

There is need to increase our aid for these people both to help them get back on their feet and to minimize the factors that lead to homelessness in the first place. This is a political issue that we can and must bring to the table. But it requires an understanding of the victimization of the homeless and most of all it requires empathy for their situation. Some of the statistics regarding poverty and homelessness in Canada are simply appalling.

There is actually considerable evidence to suggest increasing aid to preventative and recuperative factors that minimize homelessness has a substantial benefit to society at large and not simply to the homeless. Lower homeless rates correlate with lower crime rates, lower crime prevention costs, increased property value, lower drug addiction rates and a gentrification of neighborhoods. Moreover, the economic inefficiency of highly unproductive people burdening the healthcare and other social safety net programs is reduced by reducing the homeless rates. The problem is that even though we can advocate for combating homelessness entirely for societies benefit and not at all because we care about homeless people the stigma is nonetheless so strong that there are inhibitions to making progress on this issue. The idea of helping people who we have a negative perception of and attribute their situations to personal failings is so strongly combated we don't help them even when it is of benefit to society. This problem is quite general and repeats itself on many issues such as illegal immigration and assistance to landed immigrants where stigma's against these groups inhibit helping them in ways that is beneficial to society at large.

One fallacy I have noted many times is a particular excuse people use to avoid helping out. It seems to be common wisdom that simply giving money to homeless people on the streets is not the most effective way to help. It might just be spent on drugs, for instance, when donations to drug rehab clinics for homeless people would be a more effective spending of the money one might otherwise give to the homeless person. However, one has to actually follow through and do this donation! We can't use this as an excuse to suppress a palpable emotional response to help out but then not end up helping out at all, this is just a cop out.

When it comes to almost any group with a negative social stigma attached to it the best way to combat the stereotypical narratives is to humanize the participants. Demonstrating the human factors and causes that lead to people being in the situations they are in makes it difficult to retain the negative senses that were previously felt. I think in the case of homeless people - and indeed many other stigmatized groups - removing that stigma and humanizing the diverse group allows us to act in ways that benefit both them and society at large. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: