Posted: July 22, 2008 in Discrimination, Health, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Self Esteem

This past weekend I published a post called, Aid And Respect, in which I wrote about the lack of respect and dignity with which the homeless are treated by the majority of the mainstream community. I also mentioned that a homeless person’s self-esteem takes a severe beating because of the way they are generally treated by most within the community.  

One of the comments left to that posting mentioned two specific things which caught my attention. The first was,

"As a former clinical social worker, I am inclined to search for underlying psychological problems of the homeless…"

And the second,

"These guilt feelings and sense of worthlessness is largely learned by social conditioning and I suspect play a major role in the homeless feelings of impotency to deal with their situation…self respect and dignity does not need others to provide it."

It was not until yesterday evening that I posted a comment in response. Part of the reason is that I wasn’t sure of the best way of expresses my thoughts. But, let me say this, those two points by the commenter left me doing some very deep and serious thinking about it.

So, I did one of the things I do best: I began researching. Afterward, I made a telephone call to a friend of mine who I asked to log on, read the comment and then return the call – which she did within a matter of minutes. What resulted was a conversation lasted around three hours.

My friend, a clinical psychologist, is someone I’ve know for over a decade. As a result, she knew me before I became homeless, throughout the 26 months that I experienced homelessness, and, of course, now that I’ve lived through it all and have come out the other side. And, because she did know me prior to having become homeless, I felt she would be able to provide me with some insight based on a type of "then versus now" perspective – in particular with regards to self-esteem.

About mid-way through the conversation my friend asked me what I didn’t like about being homeless. I was about to tell her that there was absolutely nothing about homelessness that I liked, but I knew what she was after. She wanted specifics. So, I began to outline them.

Toward the end of the list, I mentioned that I didn’t like the feelings of chronic fatigue; the lack of proper nutrition; and the tendency to become ill more often than I did prior to becoming homeless. All three are very common conditions among the overwhelming majority of homeless.

In addition, I told her that I did not like the way I was made to feel like an outcast by the majority of the mainstream community.

I don’t mind if a person doesn’t like me for my own sake. At least then, they can point to something tangible and have a valid reason for their dislike of me. But it did bother me to be viewed with contempt and disdain simply because I was homeless – as though homelessness was a character flaw.

After I finished my long litany, there was a small silence on the other end of the line. I almost thought that the call had been cut off. Then she said something which caught me completely off guard:

"You know, it sounds a little bit like brainwashing."

After we had hung up, I pondered her words. And, I can see what she meant.

Chronic fatigue and malnutrition is highly prevalent among the homeless. Both of which make the homeless extremely susceptible to a lowered immune system. But it also makes them susceptible to having their sense of self "twisted and bent" in an unhealthy manner.

Let me explain.

Sleep deprivation has extreme deleterious effects on the human psyche. Moreover, it can and does break down the human spirit – or a person’s willpower, if you prefer that phrase instead. It also makes it difficult for a person to think rationally. And it makes them susceptible to suggestibility – hence the "brainwashing" that my friend equated it to.

During the 70’s many religious cults used sleep deprivation as a way of proselytizing their converts. And, that’s why sleep depravation is also used as an interrogation method. Once a person’s ability to exercise their free will effectively is circumvented, they are potentially open to the acceptance of opinions and ideas that they would not otherwise accept.

Consider for a moment that the homeless are more often than not, being treated as though they are a "social disease." After a while, their self-esteem takes a battering. Their sense of self is, in essence, stripped away from them by the very society which should be helping them. And once a person’s self-esteem reaches a certain low point, it makes it difficult for that person to become motivated enough to move forward with their lives.

I agree with what the comment said that "…self respect and dignity does not need others to provide it" – but, only to an extent.

The reality is this: human beings are, for the most part, social creatures. We require interaction with others. And, we have a need to feel accepted by others. I don’t know any person who goes out of their way to associate with themselves with those who constantly reject them.

There are some who claim that they don’t need other people, but I’m convinced that those who say such things are fooling themselves. Why? Because I’ve never met a person who doesn’t interact with someone else – and they generally interact with those who show them acceptance.

To be sure, there are those homeless who had a low self-esteem; or little self-respect for themselves prior to becoming homeless. Yet, in some ways all of that is irrelevant.

There is a diametrical difference between a person having self respect and being treated with respect or – as is common among the homeless – being treated disrespectfully. There is also an extreme difference between having a low self-esteem and being treated with no esteem whatsoever.

Moreover, becoming overly focused on whether the homeless have a low self-esteem or a lack of self-respect because of themselves; because of the way society in general treats them; or a combination of the two is in itself futile.

All it does is cloud the true issue; it shifts the focus away from one horrid reality…

… nor does not excuse, justify or forgive us as a society for our mistreatment and disregard of the homeless.


***** ***** ***** *****


Sid, thank you for the comment.

And, thank you "J" for the impromptu counseling session.

  1. AnAmerican says:

    Every human has unique and various psychological “make-ups” that define who we are. To separate a certain group and tag them with broad assumptions about their psychological composition fails to honor this uniqueness that we all are given.

    No matter how well adjusted and psychologically “healthy” a person might be, it is a well known fact that when people are placed in stressful situations their psychological & physical health greatly deteriorates~ and being without a home, basic amenities and food certainly qualifies as a major “stressor ” in life. While mental illness/drug addiction does occur in the homeless population, it also occurs in nonhomeless folks as well~ in my book one is not more deserving of help than the other.

    Homelessnesss is about people who don’t have a home…period. Homelessness does not define the character of an individual or other characteristics.

  2. Marie says:

    a wilderness survival expert that i know claims that the first thing a person needs to acquire when they get lost in the wilderness is shelter. without shelter, there is no hope of survival.

    Without shelter there is no hope of survival.

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