Stereotypes or Individuality?

Posted: June 23, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions

When I wrote yesterday’s post, it was in response to a comment one reader had left to Saturday’s post The People’s Kitchen: Transitionally Homeless.

Now I find myself writing this post as a response to a comment left to yesterday’s post, The "Hidden" Homeless. Actually, calling it a response is probably only half accurate. It is perhaps more of an expository – of sorts.  

The comment, left by "papahere," said,

"Michael…We do have to be careful not to stereotype the homeless…every person is a unique individual and when we look at their individuality we become more understanding of their behavior and more willing to become involved in their plight. ~ Papa"

The dictionary defines the word "stereotype" the in following manner:

stereotype (noun)

  1. A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image
  2. One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type

stereotyped, stereotyping, stereotypes (verb, transitive)

  1. To give a fixed, unvarying form to

I like that papahere pointed out that "…every person is a unique individual."

Yesterday, while I was talking with an acquaintance, he asked me what some of the reasons that cause homelessness were. I was about to respond with the same basic answer that I usually give when asked that question. For some reason, however, I heard myself saying:

"There are as many reasons for homelessness are there are homeless".

To be sure, there are many similarities for why a person finds themselves becoming homeless. But when it comes right down to it, each person experiences homelessness as a unique individual. How they handle homelessness is based entirely on "who" they are as a person.

Subsequently, in order to help a homeless person help themselves, it is necessary for us to – as papahere wrote – "…look at their individuality."

For example –

If you found yourself getting sick and went to the doctor’s office, you’d expect the doctor to treat your specific malady and not just group you in with the rest of the folks sitting the waiting room. Why? Because not everyone is there for the same reasons or the same illnesses. There might be one or two that have similar illnesses, but for the most part each person there still needs to be treated according to their unique physiology.

In the same manner, not every homeless person is a "one size fits all."

That’s the problem with stereotyping the homeless. It assumes that every homeless person falls into one of the "negative" categories that most of us are familiar with: drunk, drug addict, lazy, derelict, etcetera. Yet, there are many homeless who are not any of the above. They are just folks who have found themselves in a situation that was beyond their ability to prevent.

Despite this however, most municipalities – when they attempt to "address" homelessness in their communities – focus only on the "negative" aspects of homelessness without providing relief for those who do not fit into the stereotypes. The consequence of this is that those homeless who could potentially benefit from proactive measures end up suffering the effects of retrogressive actions, and as a result, find themselves unable to acquire the types of assistance to help them transition back into the community.

As simplistic a solution as it may seem, the necessary first step in reducing the numbers of homeless in our nation is to cast aside the stereotypes.

As papahere stated,

"…when we look at their individuality we become more understanding of their behavior and more willing to become involved in their plight."

If we truly want to end homelessness, then we must deliberately choose how we are going to view the homeless.

Are we going to continue to view the homeless through eyes polluted by stereotypes, or are we going to give ourselves permission to see them as unique individuals?

Every journey is undertaken one step at a time.

I believe that we can have a significant impact on reducing the numbers of homeless in our communities if we approach it the same way: one person – one unique individual – at a time.

  1. AnAmerican says:

    “I believe that we can have a significant impact on reducing the numbers of homeless in our communities if we approach it the same way: one person – one unique individual – at a time”

    When we have hope for improvement many great changes can occur even with the most dire of issues as homelessness. It wasn’t that long ago in our country that racial & gender prejudices commonly placed large populations of people under accepted stereotypes that would later be displaced with acceptance & understanding. From a moral perspective it benefits us all to reach beyond our preconceived prejudices against the homeless and actually get to know more about this population that exists in all of our communties. I think many folks would be shocked that for every derelict or “bum” that they associate with all homeless people there are many, many more who are in fact “good” folks who have simply fallen on hard times for a myriad of reasons.

  2. papahere says:

    Michael…Thanks for quoting me…some further thoughts on this problem…

    We recognize and are interested in people by their social identity…and the homeless are looked upon as having no social identity so unworthy of recognition…in other words they are a nonentity.

    And the homeless tend to also see themselves as unworthy with a hopeless social identity….unfortunately they have accepted the same values and judgements…the truth is a social identity is largely a facade and basically unnecessary for us to be comfortable with life.

    The only thing we have to be concerned with is meeting our basic necessities and not playing any role…in Oriental religions a person adopting this life style is looked upon with reverence.


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