Posted: March 28, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Panhandling, Stereotypes

All day I’ve been thinking about something I wrote in yesterday’s post.

Because the homeless do not have housing, the majority of their activities occur "in public."

Although the homeless are "out in public" most of their day, there is very little true interaction between them and other members of the community.  

We see the homeless as they shuffle from place to place. We see them sitting – or as some would call it, "loitering" – with all of their belongings in parks, libraries or on public benches. We catch glimpses of them pushing shopping carts, digging through trash cans or dumpsters looking for aluminum cans and plastic bottles. We may even be bold enough to utter a quick "hi" as we pass them on the sidewalks. But we seldom truly interact with them in a way that makes them feel as though they are a part of our community. And, whether we are willing to admit it or not, they are a part of our community.

For most of us, our exposure to homeless persons usually comes from seeing them "hanging about" in pubic areas. Most of the time however, if we do actually interact with them, it comes about as a result of panhandling. And, of all of the activities that the homeless engage in, panhandling seems to be the one that bothers us the most.

At one time or another, most of us have probably been approached by someone who is asking for "spare change" or, we have seen a person standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign.

Some of us will see the person and reach into our hearts, then into our pockets or wallets and give the person whatever we can afford to give. Some of us will see the person and reach into our hearts but find that our wallets are empty but, we might have a bag of chips or a granola bar or whatever and give that. What matters to us and our conscience is that we’ve given what we could.

On the other hand, there are those of us who will see the person and it will incite us to anger or contempt. We’ll tell the person to "get a job" or we may even yell some obscenity at them.

Some of us will see the person and do whatever we can to avoid coming within a certain distance of the person. There are those folks who will be in the vehicles, see a person standing on a corner with a cardboard sign and actually maneuver their vehicle as far away from the person as possible. Whether it’s out of fear for their personal safety or out of disgust toward the homeless person – I don’t know.

Then there are those persons who see a homeless person who is panhandling and ignore them altogether. They just pretend that the person isn’t there. If they are driving past the person, they suddenly discover that they’ve dropped something on the floorboard of the car, or that their rear view mirror needs to be adjusted, or that there’s a spot of something on the dashboard, or the seat belt isn’t adjusted properly, or whatever: anything to avoid having to engage in eye contact with the homeless person.

How we personally respond to our community’s homeless is largely dependant on our individual views – and sometimes prejudices – regarding what we "think" homelessness is about, or why a person is homeless. My guess is that the "appearance" of the homeless – the way they are dressed; whether they look too "dirty" or "threatening" – is one of the largest factors in how we respond to them. Unfortunately, too often, those views are skewed by misconceptions.

We see someone, who on the surface, appears to be "able bodied" panhandling and our minds jump to the conclusion that the person is just too lazy to get a job. Or we may think that they are just out there to get up enough money to buy a beer. Seldom does the thought cross our minds that the person may need money to buy something to eat, or to buy clothing or some other personal item that they cannot get through the local homeless support service agencies.

What it boils down to is that when it comes to the homeless, we judge the book by its cover. If they look too grungy on the outside we assume that it is a reflection of the type of person they are; that it reflects their personal character.

This past Christmas, my other half and I were out of town to spend the holidays with family and friends. While there, when we would go for our morning coffee (her) and hot chocolate (me), there is one homeless gentleman I would see slowly pushing a shopping cart. He walked like someone who was foot sore.

In his shopping cart he had a backpack and a large plastic trash bag. I’m assuming that the backpack and trash bag held everything he owned. In the "seat" part of the shopping cart, he had one of those large insulated coffee mugs that you buy at almost any convenience store. The one thing I had noticed about him straightaway was that anytime someone who wasn’t homeless would pass him going in the opposite direction; he would lower his eyes to the ground or off to the side. He wouldn’t make eye contact – whether out of shame or some other reason, I don’t know.

One day as I was watching him, somehow or another he stumbled or tripped and lost control of the shopping cart. As he fell, the shopping cart rolled away and off of the sidewalk tipping over onto the street with all of his belonging spilling out of the cart.

Right at that moment, there was a younger gentleman walking who, when he saw the homeless man fall hurried over to help the man up. That warmed my heart.

I’m assuming the younger gentleman was on his way to work or to some business meeting since he was carrying some type of briefcase. Nonetheless, he set down his briefcase and helped the homeless gentleman get to his feet and put of his belongings back into the shopping cart.

But there was something else I had noticed at that moment that I hadn’t noticed before. The homeless gentleman was partially lame! The shopping cart wasn’t just a way for him to carry his belongings; it was a type of walker for him.

The thought popped into my head, "Why doesn’t he just get a walker?" But, as soon as the thought was completed I had the urge to slap myself on the forehead.

A walker wouldn’t do this gentleman a bit of good. He was homeless. He had a disability. And, he had to carry all of his worldly possessions with him everywhere he went. He had had to improvise. He had to make due with what he had to work with.

I learned a valuable lesson that day.

As I said a bit earlier, when I had seem him on previous days, he walked as someone who was just foot sore. I was ignorant of all of the facts. I had never imagined that this gentleman had disability. I had assumed something else. Those assumptions were based purely on visual appearances.

You would think that since I’ve had the experience of being homeless I would know better than to make assumptions based on a person’s outer appearance.

But it makes me wonder. If a person like me, who has personally experienced homelessness, occasionally falls into the trap of assuming certain things about a homeless person based on their appearance, how can I expect others who haven’t been homeless not to make the same assumptions?

I guess I still have a lot personal growing to do – and a lot to learn.

  1. Stephanie Bregazzi says:

    Hi, i am a first year Social Work student and i found this extremely useful for a piece of group work i am doing. thank you!

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