Homelessness is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy issue to address. And although I personally do not believe that homelessness can be eliminated altogether, I am nonetheless convinced that we can significantly reduce the numbers of folks who are experiencing homelessness. But in order to do so, we have to look beyond the myths and stereotypes associated with homelessness.
One thing I’ve come to realize is that what many people believe about homelessness isn’t based on what they know, but rather on what they think they know.
In other words, their concept of what homelessness is; why folks become homeless; who can become homeless; and what may keep them homeless for extended periods of time, is based primarily on misconceived perceptions (and, in many cases, on the hearsay of others) instead of actual fact.
In addition, whenever a community finds itself struggling to "deal" with a growing and visible homeless population, public discussions become emotionally charged. Sadly the one emotion that seems to invariably take center stage is fear.
It is not unusual for me to be reading a news article about a community which finds itself trying to address homelessness. An analysis or two are presented. Demographics and studies are discussed. Everyone agrees that something must be done to "fix the problem." Suggestions are made. But then, when a proposal is put forth to build a shelter, increase services or, as in some cases, affordable housing units — well, that’s when fear kicks in.
Suddenly, folks go from the compassionate and humane Yes-let’s-do-something-to-help-the-homeless attitude to the angry Not-in-my-backyard! mindset. And the reason for their abrupt change in opinion? Fear.
Folks don’t mind the helping of the homeless as long as they themselves are not affected. They don’t mind the helping of the homeless as long as it’s located somewhere where they themselves don’t have to interact with the homeless personally. They don’t mind the helping of the homeless as long as it is someone else who is required to make the concessions.
And why is this?
Because in the minds of so many, the homeless are nothing more than drug addicts; alcoholics; mentally unstable; lazy — and yes, even dangerous thugs and criminals. In essence, the homeless are viewed as the scourge of the earth. And people are literally afraid of having them in their neighborhoods.
But is that fear even justified?
There is no denying that there are some (please note the word "some") homeless who are of questionable character. But, the same could easily be said of some folks who aren’t homeless. All you have to do is pick up your local newspaper and scan the headlines if you want proof.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of folks who are experiencing homelessness are basically decent folk. The only real difference between them and the rest of society is the lack of a place to call home. It’s that simple.
It seems silly to me that folks are afraid of someone simply because they have no home.
I can understand someone being afraid of a particular homeless person if they’ve been accosted by that specific person. But to fear an entire segment of a community’s population — in this case, the homeless — based on the actions of a handful of persons lacks common sense. And, it robs us of the ability to do what’s best, not only for our fellow man, but for ourselves, as well.
I whole-heartedly agree with what Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Marian Anderson, said about fear:
"Fear is a disease that eats away at logic and makes man inhuman."
As a society we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions: Are we going to forego helping the homeless regain a place in our communities because we are paralyzed by fear? Or are we going to behave like rationale human beings and do what’s right?
As simple-minded as is may make me appear, I believe that in order for us to effectively address homelessness in our communities, we have to set aside our fears — fears that have been anchored on misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes.
Once we do that, we will be able to clear-mindedly see what needs to be done to create successful solutions for solving homelessness in every community across our nation.
As I said at the very beginning of this post: homelessness is not an easy issue to address.
But the task becomes all the more difficult if we continue to allow fear to make the decisions for us.