“Two Faces” of Homelessness

Posted: May 19, 2008 in Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions

More than once I’ve admitted that there are times when I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Proof of that occurred a couple of days ago in my post Half A Billion Dollars. I said that Memorial Day was "this coming Monday" – which would have been today, but as you already know, today was just a "regular" Monday.

For some reason, I’m out of sync. I seem to be a week ahead of everyone else – at least as far as what day of the month it is. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m in a hurry to get to the Fourth of July.

The problem is that I when I woke up this morning, I was under the impression that today was a holiday – at least until I checked my email.  

A friend of mine who was trying to spare my feelings for having been wrong about the date, sent me an email that began like this:


When I read your blog about Memorial Day I was confused. I realize I have been out on vacation however after looking it up I hate to break the news to you… Memorial Day weekend isn’t till next Monday, May 26th, 2008. And I hope you have a lovely one as well… but not till next week. ;-)

What can I say except… Oops, my bad (and thank you K for not rubbing it in).

The thing is that Monday, May 26th, 2008 really isn’t Memorial Day either.

Memorial Day is actually Friday, May 30th, 2008. Monday, May 26th, 2008 is the "federal observance" of Memorial Day. You know how our government likes to move holidays around so that everyone can have a three day weekend. All it does is confuse the issue for a simple soul like me.

One "side effect" of my little blunder is that it started me pondering on how sometimes we believe one thing about something – and act according to that belief – even if the reality is different from what we’ve perceived. Nor does it matter that our misperceptions aren’t deliberate – we still respond according to what we think is the truth. Case in point is – as I’ve already mentioned – when I woke up this morning I was ready for a holiday. I was in essence, living as though it were next week. It took an email from a friend to bring me back to this week.

During the time that I was homeless I met quite a number of other people who were also homeless. Some had been homeless when I first showed up on the doorstep of the local homeless shelter. Others became homeless after I did.

Now, as I look back on the experience I realize something that I didn’t notice at the time. Those who were already homeless had that "look" of homelessness about them. It had to do with their clothing; their backpacks; and a type of aura of "weariness" to their demeanor. The only other way I can think to describe it is as a look of being "weather worn."

On the other hand however, those who were newly homeless had a "crisper, cleaner" look to them; less disheveled, as it were. Their clothing was in better condition, hair neat and trim. And, while they looked a little bit confused or nervous about having to be at a homeless shelter, there was still a "regular person" aura about them. They hadn’t acquired that "weary traveler" look yet.

Perhaps it had to do with the "level" of hope.

For many, when they first find themselves homeless, there is this belief that it will be a matter of a few days or so and they’ll be able to find a way of getting back into the mainstream of the community. Even after a week or two has passed, there is still a high level of hope that becoming housed again is a strong possibility.

But, as the length of time that a person is still homeless increases there are subtle changes that begin taking place.

For one, without funds to acquire new clothing, a person’s wardrobe starts to look a bit more rumpled; less clean and crisp. Then of course, limited access to laundering facilities doesn’t help the situation either.

Additionally, the struggle for just the basics of survival; the need to eat, sleep and find shelter become the predominant focus. In a city like San Luis Obispo, where the homeless shelter and the day center are at opposite ends of the city, a significant portion of time is given over in getting from one location to the other. And if you don’t have the funds to get on the bus – well… let me tell you, its one long walk.

Another thought occurs to me. I wonder if our lack of recognizing these "two faces" of homelessness is what prevents us from having a significant impact on reducing the numbers of homeless in our communities?

Most of us don’t notice the newly homeless because they still look like "regular" folk; they haven’t yet acquired that appearance of homelessness.

We might pass them everyday without every recognizing them as homeless. And because of the stigmas associated with homelessness and because of the embarrassment they are feeling, it’s highly unlikely they are going to do anything to draw any attention to themselves. As a result, we don’t see a need to do something to intervene.

Unfortunately, when we do see someone who we can identify as homeless based on their bedraggled appearance, our misconceptions of homelessness precludes us from wanting to intervene.

I may have been mistaken about when Memorial Day was going to be celebrated this year.

But there are two things I’m certain of: everyone who is homeless, at one time or another in their lives had a place to live. And, no one who becomes homeless started out looking homeless.


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