Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why are the Homeless Such Trouble to Our Society?

This week I was told that the homeless need to get a job and stop whining.  I was also told that the homeless should use the ability to get on their feet and to get a life.  I was told that the homeless were scary and that church people didn’t want to approach them.  I was told that they purposefully get in the way of good, middle class people by walking their leashed dogs on public sidewalks, by holding signs asking for help, by sitting or sleeping in public parks.  By quietly resting in their cars in a church parking lot.  Yep, those homeless are a troublesome lot.

The police do their best to get rid of them.  In the Portland area, they have been moving the homeless on every few days in the hopes that they would just move out of the city.  If a homeless person leaves their camp in public area, a garbage collector gathers their items and throws them away, letting them know that they need to move on, that public space isn’t a place for camping.

A viral video this week shows a policeman fiercely beating a homeless woman who wandered into traffic:

Why is there so much conflict between the homeless and middle class society? 

Susan Fiske, a sociologist of no little repute did a series of experiments a few years ago.  She and her colleagues put hundreds of average Americans in an MRI (not at the same time, I assume) and then displayed pictures of different kinds of people before them and measured the brain’s emotional response to these different people.  Rich people stirred envy, people in nursing homes stirred pity, middle class families stirred identification and illegal immigrants typically stirred disgust. 

 Dr. Fiske was attempting to develop a chart which laid out these instant brain reactions clearly, but, she said, there was one problem.  One group had such a severely strong reaction against the dozens that they tested for, she found that they had to be taken off the normal chart.  She said that every time the homeless were shown, the brains of the average Americans they studied instantly showed two strong reactions: that of disgust and that of objectification, of being non-persons.  Susan Fiske said, “Every time a person saw a homeless person they acted as if they were looking at a pile of garbage.”

(The description of this work and the quote is found in Susan T. Fiske’s video here:   She also describes this study in her book Envy Up, Scorn Down,  )

What we must realize is that our disgust of the homeless isn’t a result of the many reasons we have for why they are bad people.  Rather, our irrational disgust is the source for the many reasons we avoid the homeless, we fear the homeless, we don’t hire the homeless, we want them off our streets and we don’t stop the police from harassing the homeless. 

As long as we refrain to see the homeless as people, this prejudice and punishment will continue.  As long as we do not actively refute our irrational disgust of homeless people, we will fear.  As long as we do not reject our negative emotional response to the poor we do not know, then we will do nothing about their poverty.  Because no one assists a pile of garbage.  They just move them around.


  1. This post really affected me, especially the part about how people react at a neurological level to people without houses. I would like to say (reading the bio) that refering to people as their housing situation or their neurochemical differences (i.e., "the homeless" and "the mentally ill" perpetuates this objectification of people without houses. Just something to cogitate upon perhaps.

  2. Rather, if we are aware of our instant response, our "fast thinking" response, then we can respond better with our "slow thinking" response. If we ignore our prejudices, then we simply accept them as truth.

  3. Just re-read your comment. You were speaking about the label "homeless". I don't think it is wrong to have an agreed upon word that isn't offensive to the subject, just so we all know who we are talking about. When we use the word "homeless" and speak of their humanity, their personhood, their rights, then we change the meaning of the word.