America, for every 10.000 people having a home, twenty other are experiencing homelessness, as indicated by a report from the Homelessness Research Institute (HRI) (2013, p. 5). Nevertheless, it was only when the author of this paper was given the possibility to volunteer in a shelter that the penny dropped and we realized homeless people were nothing like we thought. Not all of them, in any case. When growing up, what we were usually told was to avoid any contact with homeless people. This warning did not necessarily come in verbal terms, but once you have been pulled away from their surroundings a number of times, your mind registers the “danger” and is taught how to react thereon. We have come to realize since that society usually inoculates the idea that homeless people are not productive members, that they are usually violent, thus to be avoided. It would not be exaggerated to state that perhaps, far greater is the danger caused by our perceptions over homeless people than the danger the latter possess to regular individuals or, for that matter, to society. Thus, one’s fear of homeless people can just as easily be passed on to another without them ever knowing the true story behind homelessness.
To an extent, the author of this paper grew up avoiding homeless people or trying to avoid them as much as possible. From an early age, whenever we were told to avoid a situation, it usually meant that it was something bad, thus avoidance was a protective measure. Evidently, in our mind, homeless people were to be avoided because there was something bad about them. Consequently, bad was always a generic term as much as it was descriptive, never referring to a specific situation in regards to homeless people. It was some time after our early childhood that we started developing personal assumptions as to why the latter were “indeed” to be avoided. Police forces were arresting homeless people, which meant they were undesired and must have done something “bad” that led to the arrest. Voluntary campaigns of trying to feed homeless people were often being prevented on basis of sanitation and similar attitudes enforced our belief that homelessness was a crime. No one appeared interested in why someone lost his/hers home, but many seemed to embrace the idea that homeless people had always been homeless, that they had been born that way. Unfortunately, in same cases, that was true.
Moreover, the police along with civilians wanted to improve ?the quality? Of the streets by forcing homeless people and limiting their options to either go to shelters or go to jail. This meant that having more forces working against them than with them, homeless people were somehow separated and different from the rest of the civilians, something we were also influenced by in forming our perception. In many of these cases, there was talk of laziness and there was much blame forced upon homeless people in regards to not getting a job and not being stable enough to ensure good financial support for their families. This instability was often sought to be caused by drug addictions or alcoholic issues which further nourished the perception that homeless people alone are to be blamed for the situation they found themselves in. We were told of people who had just come out of prison and had nowhere to live. Had the explanation stop there, we would have not assimilated the idea that homeless people are violent. However, because convicted individuals are also subject of stereotypes, violence is commonly associated with the former. Having heard many people relating violence to homelessness and vice versa, this misconception we, as well, assimilated. Thus, various actions we have seen taken by society in regards to homeless people, as well as many overheard conversations about their “nature” molded us into thinking that homelessness is bad and homeless people are to be avoided.
While we can blame society and the people around us for having had a negative influence in forming some of our life perceptions, we are nevertheless responsible for how we decide to dismantle such generalizations. This is especially significant once we have reached the age when we are capable of conducting our own investigations. We stated earlier on that we tried avoiding homeless people only ?to an extend. This is because, as a child, you may be fortunate enough to set aside any emotions or thoughts that either your parents or the people around you tried to pin on you, consciously or unconsciously. If you can do that, then you are able to tell that there is more to the story than what you were told which is why we started developing genuine interest for homeless people, an interest that eventually resulted with our voluntary implication in an emergency accommodation shelter. Unlike usual shelters, where people are merely given a bed for the night, this shelter emerged as one person’s concern over the well being of homeless people and has developed due to mutual interests into a self functioning non-profit organization. The shelter we are referring to thrives on offering homeless people, after a careful evaluation of their situation, a home for certain amounts of time. At the moment of our voluntary period, during which time we were allowed to live in the residence, there were six people in the services of the organization. They were each granted a private room but were however asked to have their meals downstairs in a common kitchen, the purpose being active communication between the residents themselves and the residents and the working staff. There was also a common room for watching TV, playing games, etc., as well as a meeting room. While certain conditions did exist that limited their full liberty and independence, most residents complied with the situation. They were asked to be in the house before 9PM during weekdays and 11PM in weekends, otherwise call to say they were staying out. No drugs or alcohol was allowed within the premises for obvious reasons. And, most importantly, a befriending relationship was to be kept between staff and residents. While you were allowed to offer as much support as possible, maintaining a professional relationship was imperious. Nevertheless, the residents were confident enough to share their stories and this is mainly why the author of this paper was able to form a completely different view about homelessness following the experience.
The homeless people we met during our experience looked nothing like the image we had formed previously from our earlier interactions. These were young adults, but we were told that people older in age had also been in the service of the organization. The ones before our eyes exceeded our expectations not because of their age but because they simply looked ?normal. This is to say that, had you met any of them on the street, you would have never thought these were people experiencing homelessness. No old, patched or unfit clothes or shoes, no trace of unhygienic traits. In fact, their lifestyle was very much similar to any other individual’s. They were fairly educated, some of them high school graduates, other considering art or IT courses. They were all responsible, as least responsible and considerate enough as to complete their designated chores daily. They would sometimes ask another fellow resident to complete their chore for them, promising to make it up next time. They had friends they met for coffee and regular talks and parents they were even visiting. This again dismounted our assumption of homeless people being all alone in the world and being rejected by family and friends. However, it should be stated that the residents living there had indeed experienced family related problems. Most of them had lost their homes due to some form of addiction which coerced them into making bad decisions. We remember one particular resident having also experienced legal issues because of his drug addiction. He was the oldest of residents in terms of how much time he had spent in the home — shelter. We were told he was eligible for applying to move in a place of his own which was also provided by the organization, terms constricted, of course. It was interesting that our experience would confront us with all the reasons why people become homeless but that the real situation behind those reasons was so very different and tragic. One would become homeless because of drug abuse, another because of a mental illness, etc., but neither one time did we feel justified to stereotyping those people.
It was expected of the staff and volunteer members that any bluntness in confronting the residents with their situation would be avoided. This is to say that the preferred option was to let the residents come to you and open up in conversations. Usually, this happened with all of them, sooner though with some than with others. Although we remember the stories of each of the residents in the accommodation shelter, for the purpose of our paper, we will only emphasize on two of the life situations we remember. Since we are referring to a past time event, we will illustrate the process of our interactions with the two residents as happened. Also, we will be referring to the two residents as M. And K.
One of the interesting things when spending time in an emergency shelter is that, not only do you get to know about people’s life stories, but you also become aware of the person’s habits and longings, feelings and thoughts over certain situations, personally related or generally speaking. Mark was a man little over thirty, with nice physical features and having nothing to betray his homelessness. This was something of which he was not very proud either. He came from a distinguished and financially stable family, with his father having a certain reputation in the army. M. had traveled a lot, from Europe to Africa and the likes and this was something he enjoyed doing very much. He was convinced into “trying” a certain drug by a friend and developed an addiction. Having to pay for his daily dose, he began selling things from his parents’ house which is why his parents asked him to leave after not complying with recovery drug programs. On a daily basis, you would see him cooking, something he was fond of and, whether or not this was an inherited trait from his father, he was the most organized and tidiest person in the house. He held strong opinions about music and was very determined to get back on his feet. He would share with us the intimacies of his traveling but he would be all too conservative into going in depth about his situation of being homeless. It was his pride first and foremost which enabled his determination and perhaps the desire to speak to his father again. Following his drug addiction and drug related problems, his parents terminated any contact until M.’s mother decided she wanted to let her son in her life again.
The first thing that happened when we entered the shelter was that we were given background information on each of the residents’ situation. This was to prevent any unwanted or awkward moments as well as to keep us vigilant. It is true that, while most of the people in the shelter were considered harmless, protective measures were constantly considered. When we heard about M.’s homelessness having been caused by drug addiction, the first thing we thought of was that, indeed, stereotyping is based on true foundation. However, once we got to know M., we were taken away by his outgoing, his genuine determination that we realized how stereotyping only provides an incomplete background and generalizes on terms of ignorance and poor information. M. was neither violent, nor bad mannered, he indeed had nothing that would make us want to avoid him. He was the first resident we interacted with and our conversations with him, although did not revolve around the subject of homelessness at all, was what got us further immersed into the idea that homelessness in itself is not bad. Neither are the people who experience homelessness. M. would often show up behind your back trying to spook you off and he would just as often succeed. Then he would lay before you a sheet with a dozens apartments that he thought suited him. He would be out on the streets looking for a job during daytime which is why we would often meet only after sunset. His will was appreciative and motivating and it finally paid off. We had long finished our voluntary time when we received news that he was doing very well living in a flat and having a regular job. He was now visiting his parents regularly and was involved in a serious relationship himself. One of the most important things we have learnt about homelessness due to M. is that homeless people are neither born homeless nor are they always homeless forever. Another important thing is that support is everything in dealing with homelessness. Because of similar stereotyping that we had assimilated, M. had often been rejected at jobs interviews which is disempowering especially for particular groups who are already fighting with low self-esteem.
K., on the other hand, was a troubled 27 years old male. He was experiencing severe depression which kept him very much isolated and he did indeed showed regular signs of violence. However, his violence was related strictly to him wanting to have things done in a specific manner while the rules of the shelter did not allow them. He had been committed several times into a mental hospital briefly and there were occasionally times when his situation would worsen to the extend that the staff wondered whether or not the shelter was the appropriate and best suitable place for him. Thus, our interactions with K. were short and often trivial as he would be unable to articulate words. Because of his depression, he would often look shaggy and he would regularly refuse to get out of bed or take care of himself. Although the basic reasons for his homelessness were drug related also, his situation differed vastly from M.’s. Unfortunately, he was transferred to a clinic facilitation dealing with people affected by mental illnesses. It is unfortunate because K. actually wanted to remain in the shelter and continue to live there.
The San Diego Police Department stated that ?many homeless are on the street because of substance abuse, mental illness, or both. (Prevention Tips, sandiego.gov) It also stated that ?there is a fine line between homelessness as a social issue and a criminal issue. It has been our experience that society often narrows that line to criminal issues. Moreover, bearing in mind that current regulations in some U.S. states look towards legally define homeless people as criminals, it is expected that societies’ perception will further be influenced by such radical decisions. Psychologically, studies indicate that positive feedback builds and improves one’s self-esteem. Many of those who are homeless are young people for whom social exclusion is devastating. This is why supporting them for any small progress at all is important to their future and motivation. There is a story of two rabbits that were clinging to a cliff. They both struggled not to fall into the abyss while the rabbits around yelled at them to let go because they had no chance. One of them did but the other finally managed to save himself. When asked how he managed to hold on he said he was deaf and that he thought they were telling at them to resist, that they were close, that they will succeed. This is relevant to real life situations when homeless people are often disempowered by stereotypes and assumptions. But the story is also an example of how powerful it can to know that we can rely on others.
Of course, one of the best methods to teach people different is to talk and share positive experiences about homeless people. Even though there are violent homeless people, addictive and dangerous homeless people, seriously damaged homeless people, it is important to remember they are not all as such. And before we have decided anything about them it is important to gain enough information so that our children won’t grow up crossing the street whenever they see someone who is homeless. It is important that they know that not all homeless people look like the ones they see lying on the streets. This is a very important step because children are very susceptible to information and learn more quickly than we ever give them credit for. As such, they are the ones who decide whether stereotyping is dismantled or continues to exist and have negatives effects. Thus, in combating stereotyping it is important that we evaluate our own perceptions and, where possible, actively seek grounds for our opinions. But generalizing has never had positive connotations in regards to homelessness. Our experience from volunteering in an emergency shelter is the evidence we can present for our case.
National Alliance to End Homelessness (2013). The State of Homelessness in America 2013. Retrieved from http://documents.lahsa.org/Communication/pressrelease/2013/NAEH_State_of_Homeleness_in_America_2013.pdf
San Diego Police Department (n.d.). Prevention tips: Dealing with Homeless People. Retrieved from http://www.sandiego.gov/police/services/prevention/tips/homeless.shtml
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