Still On The Fringes

Posted: June 18, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions

I’ve come to the conclusion that homelessness doesn’t really end once a person becomes a part of the "housed" community again.

Rather, I should say that the effects of homelessness don’t end. This is because of the many stigmas and misconceptions which surround homelessness. The result is that a person who has been homeless at one time or another in their life, for the most part, isn’t all that eager to let others know of their experience.  

Over the last two years or so, I’ve met numerous folks in SLO County who have been homeless at some point in their past. Now, they are a part of the community. They are employed. They have a place to live. A few of them have entered into relationships. They’ve managed to reintegrate themselves back into society. However, there is this underlying fear that those around them will find out about their "past."

The only reason these folks have shared their experiences with me is because they know that I, too, have been there. In fact, there are only three formerly homeless individuals who aren’t afraid to allow others to know of their experiences.

I myself, am somewhat caught in the middle. I would prefer is folks didn’t know about my experience with homelessness. But it isn’t something that I can just hide – especially when you consider that I’ve spent the last 14 or 15 months blogging about it, have been in a documentary about homelessness and have been interviewed for a local alternative newspaper because of the blog.

I’ve managed to find a personal comfortable balance: I don’t come right out and wear my experience on my sleeve, but then again, neither do I go out of my way to avoid it. If the topic comes up, it comes up and I deal with it. If it doesn’t, I don’t push it. The thing is, when it does come up, I never know how the other person is going to react to being face to face with a person who knows what it’s like to be homeless. It becomes a "touch and go" situation – one which leaves me having to struggle with being as understanding as possible.

Let me give you an example of what I mean –

Several days ago, I stopped to get a glass of iced coffee.

While sitting there sipping and enjoying my ice coffee, I heard someone call my name. I looked up to see the smiling face of a young twenty-something year old woman I’d met late last year. She had a friend with her. I’m going to name them, "Annie" and "Becky" – which, of course, are not their real names.

Anyway, Annie introduced me to Becky, they sat down and the conversation was pleasant until Annie asked me if I knew what I was going to write for the blog that evening. I said I didn’t know.

At the mention of the blog, Becky’s face lit up and she said: "Oh, you’re a blogger? What do you write about?" When I said homelessness, she asked why. I said because I’d experienced homelessness for 26 months.

The word "homeless" triggered something in Becky. I could see the change in her demeanor straightaway. Her body language also told me that she wasn’t comfortable: she crossed her arms tightly; she leaned back in her seat; avoided direct eye contact with me and didn’t say another word for the remainder of the time that Annie and I were speaking with each other. I could tell that she wanted to get away from there just as soon as possible.

Annie on the other hand, seemed content to keep the conversation going. I don’t think she noticed the change in her friend’s behavior. I could stand seeing Becky going through the discomfort that she was experiencing, so as graciously as I could I made some excuse about having something to do and left.

This isn’t an isolated incident though. It has happened more times that I can count. There it something about the word "homeless" that creates barriers to social interaction in some folks. These obstacles are a result of the myths and misconceptions that seem to perpetually surround homelessness.

When I shared this experience with a friend of mine, she said,

Michael this speaks volumes of this person’s lack of insight. I hope you know that this wasn’t about you, but about something that she didn’t have an understanding about.

I agree with my friend that this type of "drawing back" from a person who is – or even has been – homeless is due to a lack of insight and understanding. And I’m certain that in most situations this is probably the case.

I also agree with my friend that it probably wasn’t about me personally. But because I’m willing to allow Becky the benefit of the doubt I can’t help but wonder why she felt this way about homelessness.

Could it be that she’s had a "bad experience" with a homeless person – perhaps a homeless person who happened to behave in a belligerent or unseemly manner toward her sometime in the past?

Or, could it be that she has herself experienced homelessness at some point in her life?

I’ve met a few formerly homeless people who are very contemptuous of those who are currently homeless. You would think that everyone who has experienced homelessness would be a bit more understanding of those who are currently going through it. But for some reason, there are those formerly homeless who think that because they’ve managed to get out of homelessness that every other homeless person should be able to do the same – the result is that they "look down" on those who are still homeless.

Or, could it be that Becky is simply parroting what she has "learned" about homelessness from family and friends?

I have to admit that I have no idea why she responded the way she did. I can only speculate.

What saddens me is that there are so many like Becky, for who just the mention of the word "homeless" is enough to stir up prejudices.

Unfortunately, it’s the homeless – and the formerly homeless – who pay for those prejudices at the social level. It can preclude the ability for anyone who has ever been homeless to feel as though they can ever truly become a part of the community again. It leaves them with a feeling of disconnect.

They are in the community, but not a part of the community.

They’re still on the fringes of society; still on the outside looking in.

  1. AnAmerican says:

    How much we miss in life when we cling to societal prejudices that leave no room for expanding our experiences & knowledge. Your ability to look at this incident with objectivity is commendable. If only we could view the issue of homelessness with such objectivity and openess we could bridge the unfounded stereotypes and proceed with making some headway in really helping this population.

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