I have a question about maintaining empathy in this capitalist hellscape. I live in NYC and there are homeless people everywhere. I can remember being a kid and having huge amounts of sympathy for the homeless in my hometown; I always gave some of my allowance money if I walked by a homeless person, or asked a parent for a dollar to give. Now I’m 27, have lived in NYC for 2+ years, and have lost so much sympathy for the suffering of the homeless.I know logically that I should be much more sympathetic to their situation, but I also can’t help but think they are such a nuisance. I almost never give them a spare dollar. I just can’t afford it. I loathe them for inconveniencing me with their shouting and their stench. I think that if they’ve reached the point of needing to beg strangers for help, they must have alienated all of their loved ones; I’d never be in that position. If the people who love them won’t help them, why should I?But logically I know that’s not true. I could be in that place with just a few family tragedies. It’s this internal battle I deal with every day on my commute: I dehumanize these people, I feel guilty and logically know I’m wrong. I do nothing to help. I want to stop dehumanizing the homeless because I know it’s wrong, and because I know I can do better for them and society can do better for them. What can be done? How do I get over being annoyed and repulsed every time a homeless person inconveniences me?
This is an anonymous question we received on our Tumblr. And… it’s a doozy.
It takes a rare person to be this self-aware, pragmatic, and compassionate. The last thing I want to do is submit this person for public shaming for finding homeless people “annoying” and repulsive. Instead, I want to applaud them for doing something rather difficult: staring straight into the heart of one of our collective societal failures and searching for a solution.
We tend to equate poverty with moral inferiority. And so it can be easy to look at homeless people and dismiss them as individual moral failures. They’re people who’ve fucked up so bad they have to live in a cardboard box, right? I want to challenge that dark individualism.
So let’s talk about homelessness.
It can happen to any of us
As John Oliver so eloquently explains in this clip, the vast majority of Americans are sooooo much closer to being a homeless beggar on the streets than they are to being on MTV’s Cribs.
Our individual financial security is fucking precarious! That’s why we write this blog! Yes, you can build up an emergency fund and save six months of your income, but when you get right down to it, most of us are one major medical emergency away from bankruptcy.
And if you can’t recover from said emergency, if you don’t have a support network to get you out of that mess… that’s it. You’re done. You’re staring down the barrel of homelessness and getting judged by strangers on the street for your inability to stay clean and hygienic while you literally sleep under the overpass and rummage through the dumpster behind Au Bon Pain for day-old bread.
I’m hoping this stark reminder puts things into perspective. Most of us have more in common with the homeless guy at the park than we do with the Koch brothers.
Why are people homeless?
The knee-jerk reaction of the uninformed is that homeless people must’ve really fucked up to lose all support and end up on the street. Surely, someone like you could never end up there because you have people who love and support you, right? And besides that, you’ve taken care to build up your personal safety net. You’ve made responsible choices and Done the Right Thing. Homeless people can’t be anything like you—they’re just irresponsible!
That might be true for some. But a large segment of the homeless population doesn’t fit into that narrow stereotype.
A lot of homeless people are mentally ill and slipped through the cracks left by their caretakers and an imperfect system.
In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of homeless people in our country have some form of mental illness. They report that the mental illnesses of homeless people disrupt their ability to perform essential parts of daily life: self-care, household management, and forming and maintaining stable relationships.
The result is that these people who desperately need the help of others end up pushing away or fearfully running from those who might otherwise be able to help them: caregivers, family, and friends.
Sadly, people with mental illnesses (read: sick people who truly need medical care) are more likely to experience homelessness than the general population.
Aging out of foster care
Others among the homeless population are kids who have aged out of the foster care system with no helping hand and no prospects for an education or career.
Think back to your eighteenth birthday. Were you expected to move out of your parents’ home the very same day? Manage your own finances? Support yourself?
I’m guessing the answer is no.
Every year, 20,000 young people age out of the foster care system. They have no families, no safety net, no support network. And yet they’re expected to become functioning adults overnight.
Some of them are able to line up jobs and places to live right away. But a lot of them, through no fault of their own, end up on the street.
Some homeless people are gay and trans youth who were literally kicked out of their homes and disowned by their families.
This is where things get really fucking dark. The Coalition for Homeless Youth notes that a staggering number of LGBT youth who wind up on the streets turn to prostitution to survive. Many of those end up contracting sexually transmitted diseases and becoming addicted to dangerous drugs. Oh yeah, and they get to deal with the joys of homophobia and transphobia on top of everything else.
According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, 40% of the nation’s homeless youth identify as LGBT. Of these, 46% are runaways who left because their families rejected their sexual orientation or gender identity. And 43% were forced to leave their homes by parents who would rather condemn their child to a life on the streets than have a gay or trans child.
I’m not a parent, but I’m hard pressed to imagine a more cruel and inhumane thing a parent can do to their child.
Substance abuse and addiction
Other homeless people are addicted to substances in this great nation where we treat addiction like a crime rather than the public health crisis it is.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Substance abuse is both a cause and a result of homelessness, often arising after people lose their housing.”
And again, if we consider addiction a health crisis rather than a sign of moral failing, then homeless addicts are doubly fucked: trapped with a health condition that prevents them from living a normal, financially stable life, and cut off from the resources and support network that would allow them to recover.
Lastly, let’s not forget that many homeless people are veterans who have been totally abandoned by a broken and struggling VA. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, about 11% of homeless adults are vets.
Full disclosure, I am the daughter of a disabled veteran and that life experience has given me strong opinions on the VA. Like, strongly negative opinions. So while some might not think it’s fair to even partially blame the VA for the preponderance of vets on the street, I’m totes cool with that generalization!
The point is that a lot of people join the military to better their lives. Whether it’s to get out of generational poverty, become citizens after emigrating to the States, pay for a college education, or to support a family, many service members view the U.S. military as a way out.
How tragic, then, when they’re discharged onto the streets and provided with little in the way of healthcare and transition assistance. Many veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress, which can lead to the kind of mental health issues and substance abuse problems discussed above.
Above all, compassion
The homeless person you pass on the street could be a runaway, an addict, a mentally ill person, an abuse survivor, or a veteran.
Put even the most normal, patient, chill person in any of these situations, grind them down with bad weather, abuse, lack of nutrition and healthcare for months and years, and I guarantee they’ll get a bit surly.
When you meet a loud, annoying, unhygienic homeless person on the street, you’re meeting them at their worst. I defy you to act any better in their situation!
Let’s return to our anonymous question asker. Because I honestly don’t blame them for their feelings of discomfort and disgust in the presence of some homeless people! They’re not all saints, just like those of us who have homes. Some homeless people can be mean, belligerent, dirty, rude, or annoying. That’s not a pleasant person to deal with. Nobody wants to put up with an intrusion into their daily routine that makes them uncomfortable.
Our question asker shouldn’t feel bad for having an intensely negative reaction to difficult people. But what makes those people difficult is probably not their homelessness.
Assholes come in all shapes and colors
Kitty chiming in briefly to say: I once worked with a woman who was invisibly homeless. She held a good job in the tech industry, had a neat and professional appearance, seemed super put-together, and was genuinely sweet as pie. But she and her daughter slept in a car every night for several months, waiting for beds at a women’s shelter to open up. She spent all of her paychecks on lawyers to keep her physically abusive husband at bay. No one at work had any idea until one day when she was particularly stressed, and the truth came flooding out. Homeless, but not an asshole.
Conversely, in my old neighborhood, a disheveled woman used to pester me for money on my commute home. She told lies about her situation to get kindhearted people to give her money. She’d spend that money on alcohol, drink it on the bench in front of my house, and pass out in a pool of her own piss, leaving bottles and cigarette butts everywhere. If you declined to give her money (and she was feeling feisty), she’d hit you with a big glob of spit, or cuss you out. Charming!
Here’s the thing, though… that woman was not homeless. She lived in the apartment building across the street from me, and was always too wasted to recognize me as her neighbor. Not homeless, but an asshole.
Non-homeless people can be massive fucking dicks on a regular basis, so why not the homeless?
Generalizing the behavior of a group of people by one trait they share is a pretty bad idea. That’s when you hear things like “women love tearing each other down” or “young people are too lazy to vote” or “white people can’t dance” because EXCUSE ME, I CAN SHAKE IT. Lumping all people together by their housing status is exactly as arbitrary as lumping them together by religion, or gender, or skin color. Especially when most homeless people don’t have a different choice.
There is a very thin line separating all of us financially stable people from the homeless. That alone makes them worthy of our compassion and respect. Basic human decency goes a long way to someone who gets alternately ignored and shat upon by most of the human race. You are not obliged to have perfect Christlike feelings towards everyone you meet in New York City. But your blanket contempt won’t improve their situation, and it won’t make you happier either.
Here’s s’more on why we should all cut the poor and homeless a break:
- Why Are Poor People Poor and Rich People Rich?
- The Subjectivity of Wealth, Or: Don’t Tell Me What’s Expensive
- It’s More Expensive to Be Poor Than to Be Rich
What can we do to help the homeless?
Here’s what you can do to stop feeling impotent, useless, and heartless when you see a homeless person and you can’t afford to give them money.
I personally very rarely give money to individual homeless people. But I do donate to a number of charitable organizations that help to alleviate the plight of the homeless and impoverished in my country. I also vote for politicians and policies that will improve life for those struggling to make ends meet.
I support policies and politicians who aim to get at the root of the homelessness problem—not just systemic poverty, but inadequate mental health programs, lack of support for veterans and the disabled, and lack of protection for children suffering abuse or lacking stability in their home lives.
And if you ever doubt that your vote counts, just know this: there are some politicians and states that are going to drastic measures to help relieve homelessness! Take it away, Lloyd Pendleton, head of Utah’s Homeless Task Force:
I pay taxes in the hopes that my money will be used to stab the root problems of homelessness in the heart. When I see a homeless person on the street, I remind myself that I am making informed political decisions to help them. I remind myself that they are the reason I donate to charities and food banks. And yeah, sometimes if I can, I spare a dollar for their plight (though I rarely carry cash). But if I can’t in that moment, then I know that I’ve still done something on a broader scale.
When this discussion came up on Tumblr, one of our followers wrote in about their own experience with homelessness:
I was homeless for six months because of laws in my state preventing me from signing a lease or getting a hotel. I think you’ve gotta be pretty entitled to assume that because someone’s homeless they did anything wrong. I got straight As in school had a full-time job and a large savings account and ended up in my car. My family wouldn’t take me because I’d ‘be an inconvenience.’ My friends wouldn’t take me in either. I did all the things the right way but got screwed by an unfair system. You want to help homeless people? Offer them a ride or some food or something tangible. That’s always what I needed. Even sitting down and talking would help. Homelessness is lonely.
Something as simple as a bureaucratic technicality made this person homeless. And the lack of a safety net or social support network left them hanging.
Yet what they longed for aside from the necessities of survival was respect. Comfort. Being treated like a goddamn person.
We clearly have a long way to go before we’ve solved the problem of homelessness in America. But in the meantime, remember that so little can do so much.