Read The Fine Print

Posted: December 15, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Misconceptions

I seem to be always pointing out that not all homeless fit the stereotype.

The fact is that those stereotypes disappeared decades ago. The face of homelessness has changed dramatically in that time. However, many folks continue to believe that all homeless persons are so by choice or through some fault of their own.  

The most commonly held misconceptions of the homeless are that they are lazy; have an alcohol or drug addiction; that they are societal leeches; or that they refuse to find employment. Yet, all a person need do is scan the headlines to realize that their community’s homeless are regular folk who have fallen on hard times. And in today’s economic climate – falling on hard times is becoming a more common occurrence.

Many of this nation’s homeless are folks who never thought that homelessness could happen to them. They’d wake up every morning, go to work and pay their bills. Some held the same job for years. They may not have been making money hand over fist. There may have even been times when things became tight financially, but they probably did not foresee a time when they’d find themselves without a roof over their heads.

An article in yesterday’s Washington Times, Changing Face Of Homelessness, had this to say,

"Today’s global financial crisis has spawned massive dislocations of many new and surprising types. The current economic downturn, unlike others in the past, is hurting not just the already-poor but also people who were considered safe and well off. Once mighty banks have been brought low – or destroyed. And millions of people who were living the American dream – as homeowners – are heading for the street.


The images of homelessness – sunken-cheeked men railing against imaginary voices – now include the specter of the family next door – former homeowners and the recently unemployed. These once middle-class folks now have been tossed into desperation by the international credit crunch."

I believe there are two primary reasons why the stereotypes of homelessness continue to persist in the minds of many people. Both reasons go hand in hand.

The first has to do with "visibility."

Most of the time, when we do recognize a person as being homeless, it’s because of their appearance: clothing which is dirty, torn and so on. The person may be sitting or lying in some public place. They might be intoxicated or "high." This "pubic persona" creates a stark contrast to the rest of the community; makes them stand out. However, these "recognizable" homeless are the minority.

Over time we’ve become a casually dressed society. This makes it easier for the majority of homeless to "blend in" – at least when it comes to outer appearances. And, because they are acutely aware of what the public’s general perception of homelessness is, these "unseen homeless" make every attempt to not be recognized as such. The drawback is that it prevents folks from seeing just many homeless there really are within their own community. Subsequently, there is the belief that there exists no real need to expand or create additional services for the homeless.

The best analogy would be that of an iceberg: that which is visible above the water line represents only a fraction of its totality.

This brings us to the second reason: a lack of public awareness regarding the issue.

As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, few cities have made any attempt to educate the public about or to dispel the misconceptions surrounding homelessness. If anything, from what I’ve read in the news, many local leaders themselves have the tendency to believe the stereotypes. This is perhaps why their usual method of addressing the issue is to adopt or strengthen ordinances which penalize the homeless for performing life sustaining activities in public.

The sad irony is that these methods of dealing with homelessness do not succeed. And, the numbers of homeless continue to rise. As a result, local politicians will then conduct some type of "study" to determine how to best deal with the issue. This in turn, generally results in even more stringent ordinances being implemented.

Even in those communities which recognize the need to expand services for the homeless, those efforts are most times only "piece meal" at best.

And before someone leaves a comment or sends an email telling me of how their community is implementing a "10 year plan to end homelessness," let me say this: read the fine print.

These plans address the issue of chronic homelessness only. The remaining 90 percent of homeless will be completely ignored by these 10 year plans. They will not even be eligible for assistance. And, when you consider that families are the fastest growing segment of this nation’s homeless population, you can see how these plans will have little impact at reducing homelessness.

There is a genuine need to re-educate ourselves and change our perceptions of the homeless. It’s a must.

Until we do, our fellow citizens will continue to suffer the indignity of being without a place to call home.

Think you know what homelessness is all about? Think you know who the homeless are or why they’re homeless? Think that all the homeless are drunks or drug addicts; that they’re just too lazy to get a job?

Let me reiterate: read the fine print.

  1. anamerican says:

    Your blog is a wonderful source of education regarding homeless issues in this country.
    A HUGE issue with our exposure to homeless issues is that quite often people don’t realize how many homeless there are in communities. Most Americans don’t live in metropolitan areas where homeless are more visible. In rural areas, many of the homeless go unnoticed as they etch out survival away from communities,often becoming invisible to the mainstream….but they are there. Out of site out of mind?

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