Think The Homeless Are Just Bums And Derelicts? Think Again.

Posted: October 20, 2009 in Acceptance, Compassion, Discrimination, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Misconceptions, Morality, Poverty

The stereotypes most often associated with homelessness permeate our social mindset. As a result, is difficult for many people to imagine that some of our nation’s homeless are actually victims of circumstances.

We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of the homeless as derelicts, bums, drunks, drug addicts, and etcetera. Reflexively – and without challenging our own perceptions – we tend to blame a person’s homelessness on themselves. And, because of that, we are all too often unwilling to provide anything more than the absolute bare minimum of resources and assistance to our homeless.

This offering of "table scraps" is just enough to keep the homeless alive – and hopefully, out of sight – but does nothing to actually help them get off the streets.  

There is no denying that there are those homeless who do indeed fit the stereotype. However, the stereotype is not an accurate representation of the nation’s total homeless population.

An ever growing number of homeless are folks who others would’ve never imagined would end up out on the streets.

An article in the Daily Press this past Saturday, pointed out that an increasing number of homeless are people who,

"… never thought of turning to a homelessness organization in the past.

Many facing financial destitution used to consider themselves of the middle class.

They were small business owners or middle-income family members whose jobs were wiped out by the country’s economic woes."

A recent article in the New York Times, reported that,

"Growing numbers of Americans who have lost houses to foreclosure are landing in homeless shelters…

Many take refuge with families and friends, occupying extra bedrooms, basements and attics. But such hospitality rarely lasts.

So, as lean times endure and paychecks disappear, homeless shelters are absorbing those who have run out of alternatives."

What makes it all the more tragic is that articles, like the two I’ve cited above, are becoming common place.

It seems not a day goes by that I don’t read an article from somewhere around the nation which is spotlighting a local person or family who have found themselves homeless due to circumstances beyond their control.

And yet, despite these types of news reports, it is the stereotypes which remain the predominant perception of homelessness in the minds of many Americans.

I’m not sure why.

Perhaps it is because if we were willing to admit that the majority of homeless do not fit the stereotype, we’d have to also admit that what we believed about homelessness was wrong.

And we don’t want to be wrong, do we?

Maybe it’s that if we were to admit that not every homeless person is a "bum," we’d then have to explain to ourselves why we hadn’t done something to help the homeless.

But, how does one excuse the inexcusable?

Or, could it be that we’ve known all along that the homeless stereotype is a myth and we’ve chosen to deliberately ignore it?

After all, ignorance is supposedly bliss. And, if we can convince ourselves that anyone who is homeless isn’t worth helping that lets us off the hook. It doesn’t require us to be accountable to our own consciences or to put forth any effort.

It may also be that we don’t want see homelessness because we’re terrified that we may be the next one in line to experience it.

  1. Matt says:

    It has long been my belief that most people are more comfortable with the traditional homeless stereotype. This makes it possible for them to apportion blame on alcoholism, substance abuses, poor life choices. This in turn allows them to believe it could never happen to them or those they care about. As soon as they accept that circumstances can conspire to make almost anyone homeless they become vulnerable. No one wants to live in fear, better the fantasy of security.

    • Shelagh Considine, Morro Bay says:

      I became homeless this year. I do not fit your stero-type. I do not smoke, drink or do drugs. And I had no street smarts at all. So I turned to Dan at Sunnyside Ranch to house me. They took bets on how long I would last! It wasn’t what I was used too, being middle-class myself. And a former business owner. And a former home owner. Thank you Dan, for giving me shelter while others would and did, turn away.

      America should be ashamed of itself. Telling other countries how to do it, and not doing it themselves.

  2. Steven says:

    Hi Michael – great post my friend!

    Been overwhelmingly busy and so haven’t visited the site for some time but will catch up on reading and relaxing this weekend so hope to chime in on some of your recent posts here.

    Wanted to share something with you from the Economic Populist; not sure you read here but was thinking about you re the dollar discussion over at Homeless Tales.

    Thought you’d find this fascinating and interesting; it will bore the tears outta most folks I think, but hoping you’ll find some value in it:

    Cya soon bro!

  3. Evelyn says:

    Hello, again, Michael
    Just feel compelled to chime in on this topic. I feel that people in general are getting a daily education about the multiple personalities of homelessness. Regardless of our exposure to homelessness, how we perceive it and what are we doing about it personally can be most of the time polar extremes.

    In short what are the majority of enlightened folk doing about it, personally, in their day to day lives?

    I know a couple who are quite elderly and he is in mid-stage alzheimer’s. They live in a tiny,OLD beach-type cottage in Arroyo Grande and found room in thier home and hearts for a homeless woman many months ago. They exchange services which for the most part are a cross between symbiotic and down- deep caring on both sides. daily. All three of them have found an extended family they each needed.

    I felt compelled to share, Michael, that if people took the challenge more to their hearts our country wouldn’t be in the shape it’s in today.

    My new best friend told me of seeing on Oprah yesterday about Denmark and how that country has circled its wagons to see that there is no homelessness there.

    My own family looks at me differently now that someone else has reached out and touched someone, namely, me. I’m not their homeless mother, which technically I still am. I’m someone of value to my new family.

    Thanks for your blog, Michael!


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