Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Breaking Down Hobo-phobia

Prejudice is seeing a person, not as an individual, but as a part of a cultural movement you dislike.   It is an instant reaction, not something we control.  As soon as we see someone, we have a response from our most primitive, fastest part of our brain, and our minds have already judged that person.  When we see a young black man, our instant response is fear (even if you are black).  When we see a handicapped person, our instant response is pity.  When we see a wealthy person, our instant response is envy.   That doesn’t mean we have to respond to that instant response, but the response, for most people, is there and instant. 

Studies have shown that the strongest, most pervasive of prejudiced instant responses in American society is toward the homeless.  The far majority of people in the United States, when they see a homeless person, have a response of disgust.  Susan Fiske, in summarizing her analysis of the data, said, “A homeless person is seen as a garbage heap.”  This is an interesting metaphor, because this is how many city governments treat the homeless: piles of trash that should be moved on from place to place because there is no garbage heap to dump them on.

Once we see people as disgusting and horrible, if we give into that emotion, we will have one of two responses: anger or fear.  We might feel anger if we feel that they are lying by their appearance, trying to strike pity, but really being criminals or hidden monsters.  This might cause us to want to push them away, perhaps say something in anger or even desire to do violence to them (although we never would).  Our instant response might cause us to see the homeless as so much an alien, a blight on our land, that we fear them and what they might do to us or our children.  We don’t want to harm them so much as get them away, to transform them into people we can appreciate and care for.

Many of us reading this might say that we have never had these emotions about the homeless.  As far as we know, we have not felt disgust or fear or anger toward someone just because they were homeless.  The other instant reaction that might come up, and is just as limiting, is pity.  We might see a homeless person and instantly feel sorry for them.  This seems to us a positive response, and so we often allow ourselves to give into our impulses of pity.  But these impulses also diminishes an adult, even infantilizes them.  A person filled with pity might want to teach the homeless how to live, to “mentor” them, to assume what they need and give it to them.

How do we know if we have a prejudiced attitude toward the homeless?  Take this simple yes or no quiz:
  • Do we assume we know a persons’ life story by looking at them?
  • Do we assume we know how a person got into trouble?
  • Do we assume they are criminals, lazy or miserable?
  • When we see two homeless people talking together in private, do we assume they are up to no good?
  • When we see a homeless person working on two or more bikes, do we think they have stolen them?
  • When we see a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, do we assume they stole it from a grocery store?
  • Do we think homeless people need just one thing to help them? (e.g. food, a place in a shelter, a kick in the butt, a listening ear?)
  • Do we assume that all homeless want to live like us? Or that they all want to be homeless?
  • Do we assume that all the homeless are addicts?
  • Do we look down on a homeless person doing something that wouldn’t be considered “bad” if they did it in their own personal apartment? (e.g. drinking a beer, having sex with their girlfriend, sleeping)
  • If we saw a homeless person on our property, is our impulse to call the police to get rid of them?
  • Do we want to take care of the homeless, assuming they can’t help themselves?
  • Do we assume all homeless are mean?  Or dangerous?  Do we assume all the homeless people are friendly? Or looking for help?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, it means you have prejudiced assumptions about the homeless.  But don’t beat yourself up about it, almost all homeless folks have one or more of the assumptions above, even if they themselves don’t fall in any of the categories.

Homeless folks are people.  Yes, many of them do need help, and yes, some of them are criminals.  Just like housed folks.  Some are mean and some are friendly.  Some have hope and some have given up.   The homeless are young and old, men and women, educated and drop outs, employed and unemployed. 

However, there are a few generalizations we can make about all homeless folks:

1.       They are stressed
Because of the stigma of homelessness, even if they don’t believe it, they know that most people do.  So they don’t know when they might get attacked, abused, yelled at or told to move.  They might get ticketed or even arrested for something they didn’t do.  Generally, they have to work hard to get less, just to survive.  Almost everyone who has been homeless for a year or more have PTSD, and this stress leads to a shorter life.  Stress is usually the cause of addictive behavior on the street, and it requires a strong will not to give in to that crutch. To just leave the stress behind.

2.       They are lacking support
If a homeless person had adequate support, they would be staying in someone’s home.  We don’t know why they lack that support, if it is their own fault, other’s fault or some combination. But most people have friends or family who will let them crash on a couch, if nothing else.  Some people are unable to obtain support from their friends because they have been stigmatized by their homelessness.  The homeless are the 1 percent who have no where to go, no one to help them in the way they really need help.  Even those who help the homeless full time don’t have the resources to provide for them what they need. 

3.       They don’t know who to trust
Because of the widespread prejudice against the homeless, what a person looks like may not be the truth.  Perhaps they are trying to take advantage of you, they are using the poor to prop themselves up.  There are shelters that abuse their guests, and people who look like they want to help who turn on you in a moment.  This is because almost everyone feels superior to homeless people and some don’t have any problem with stealing or taking advantage of the homeless.  It is easier to con the homeless because they are so desperate.  Because the homeless have been hurt so many times, they don’t trust people easily.

4.       They need opportunities
The homeless don’t really need a handout, although they might ask for that because they think it is all they can get.  What they really need is an opportunity for a better life.  Each homeless person understands a good opportunity differently.  For some, it is a job.  For others, a safe place to sleep.  For others, an apartment.  For others, a friend to stay with.  Some need mental health assistance, some need rehab, some need work to do.   But opportunities for the homeless are hard to come by, and the longer they stay on the street the harder they are to find.

If we want to help the homeless, then there are a few things that, knowing these facts, come to mind immediately.  The first is that, just like any racism or sexism, we need to speak out against hobophobia.  If anyone makes a prejudiced statement about the homeless, they should be gently but firmly corrected.  We don’t know any person’s story, and we must not make assumptions or generalizations.

Second, we should make relationships with the homeless.  We must not treat them like a group, as if their issues or cares are all the same.  We should get to know them individually, listening to their story and responding appropriately, knowing that they have a unique experience and a unique life-situation.  This means we know fewer homeless than those who serve hundreds, but we can have a greater chance to actually help them if we get to know them.

Third, we provide opportunities for the homeless we get to understand.  We ask what they want and need and we see if we can help them take the next step to escaping poverty or the stigma of homelessness.  We don’t all have the same resources, so we won’t be able to give our homeless friend what they might need.  We won’t always know if what our homeless friend wants is what will really improve their lives.  But in friendship and partnership, we can improve the life of our homeless friend, just by being their friend.


  1. I follow MennoNerds and your blog just came up through my feed. It's almost providential, because I am a uni student who has just applied to do a summer internship with a ministry that serves the homeless in a local city. This post is helping me examine my own assumptions and is also something I will share with my friends and family.
    May I ask for your view on the defining characteristics of work with the homeless that is not condescending?

  2. Hmmm, I wonder if I have a short answer to your question, Lit-Lass. I'll try.

    Work for the homeless that is not condescending:
    -Listens to the perspective of the homeless
    -Takes suggestions from the homeless
    -Includes the homeless in planning
    -Is primarily interested in building relationships and not service
    -Includes the homeless in serving
    -Gives the homeless leadership positions

    That's as short as I can make it. :)

    1. Oh! And sees the homeless person, not a project :)