Homelessness is one of those topics that everyone has an opinion about. It is a visible social phenomenon, unlike other widespread social problems that happen behind closed doors, like sexual abuse, domestic violence, child hunger, etc. However, those who are the visible homeless are a small fraction of the homeless, which is a shocking fact to many people. Homelessness is so highly stigmatized that it is rare for those who survive it to want to acknowledge it publicly and there is nothing external that identifies a person as homeless or formerly homeless.
A study done a few years back surveyed Americans about their belief systems about homelessness. The Fannie Mae study, called "Homelessness in America: Americans' Perceptions, Attitudes and Knowledge" illuminates some interesting facts. Seventy seven percent of Americans perceive that it is primarily single adults who are homeless, when quite the opposite (pdf) is true. You only have to read this website, look around soup kitchens and food pantries or read the newspaper to realize that family homelessness is on the rise in our country.
Notably, the income level of respondents affected perceptions of whether homelessness was increasing or decreasing in a community and whether a person thought it was likely that he or she might experience homelessness. Another factor which shifted opinions was whether a person had ever taken in a family member or friend who was in danger of experiencing homelessness. Most respondents (85 percent) felt that drug and alcohol abuse (pdf) was a major factor in why people become homeless, although multiple studies show that homeless people only report this as one of many factors. The fact that these studies are generally from self-reports may mean that the rate of substance abuse is under-reported. Or more likely, it means that homelessness rarely has a single cause (pdf), and is often a complex interplay between personal vulnerabilities, social problems and lack of a safety net.
If I had a dollar for every person I've heard say, "Homeless people are coming to Boulder for the services we have here," I would be a millionaire instead of a struggling single mother. This, too, flies in the face of multiple research studies. Research suggests that from 60-85 percent of homeless people in any given community are originally from that community (pdf), not to mention the prevalent and completely erroneous perception that all homeless people do not work.
So, my question is why? Why are homeless people perceived as violent, dangerous, foreign, lazy, stupid, unmotivated, irresponsible and just plain repellent? To a person, every volunteer or visitor that has ever reported back to me on a conversation they had with a homeless person remarked on that homeless person's humanity. And yes, humanity in its aggregate has some unpleasant attributes at times, but the underlying logic of stereotyping has a huge fallacy. It is reductive logic to generalize from one person or experience to the larger group. Much as at the birth of the civil rights movement activists demanded that each person of color be recognized as an individual, the nascent homeless rights movement must insist that each person's individuality and value be recognized.
As we watch our country in economic and social decline, as a culture we can no longer afford to write off any group of people as worthless.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons