The notion that individuals experiencing homelessness are at fault for their own experience and are inherently bad people is a common thread in many cultures. It crosses over political ideologies and is a commonly held belief by both liberals and conservatives. It’s rooted in generations worth of (religious and neoliberal) stereotypes, structural racism and myths about people experiencing homelessness and poverty.
“When housed people see homeless people in their day-to-day lives, they can’t ignore the problem,” says Erica Barnett, a long-time journalist in Seattle. “Proximity breeds empathy in some people, and hatred in others. Sometimes people have empathy at first, then observe over time that the problem continues to get worse and throw their hands up in the air not believing the problem can be solved. This involves a process of dehumanizing other people to some extent. People stop thinking of people experiencing homelessness as actual human beings.”
“Homelessness runs on a narrative of fear and exclusion. It’s primal and it gets exploited,” says Tim Harris, a longtime housing advocate and street paper veteran. “It doesn’t matter what the facts are, or that we’ve had an ongoing housing crisis. If you don’t have alternative voices in the community to combat these viewpoints, fear-based narratives will win almost every time. Over time, people start to believe that homeless people are the actual problem instead of the lack of living wage jobs and the high cost of housing. It’s a very active, ongoing and dangerous narrative in American life.”
Blaming individuals for their own homelessness also deflects any sense of collective responsibility for actually solving the housing crisis. While many people believe that providing vulnerable citizens with a safe place to call home is essential to maintaining a healthy society and providing future generations with the opportunity at a better life, many citizens don’t know how to actually engage with the issue in a way society can see a measurable difference.
Here are some basic ways to think about reframing the conversation about homelessness and housing when talking with your peers, friends and family this holiday season.
Photo by Alastair Boone. Courtesy of Street Spirit.
The experience of homelessness is not a reflection of an individual’s choice or character — it’s a circumstance that happens to groups of people when society and governments don’t provide the necessary social safety nets and housing to support people. Millions of people don’t choose homelessness over a safe place to call home.
One of the most fundamental things we can collectively come to understand is that homelessness is not a permanent condition for individuals or families, but something human beings experience over a period of time.
The reasons for people’s homelessness are many. A war veteran living on the street with an addiction or a traumatic brain injury. A mother and child fleeing a domestic violence situation, or a young transgendered or gay kid who has been kicked out of a conservative home with no place to go. It could be an elderly woman living in her car who can no longer afford an apartment on a fixed income. A mental ill person who doesn’t have adequate mental or physical healthcare. A suburban family who lost a home to foreclosure. Individuals and families displaced from a hurricane or wildfires, or a refugee fleeing economic hardship or political repression or a war-torn country.
Regardless of people’s circumstances, housing for our most vulnerable citizens is a public infrastructure needed to support a healthy society. We don’t think about things like our transportation systems, bridges, parks, police and fire departments as charity and/or a government hand out. Housing is no different. Everything we do in life starts with having a safe place to call home.
The homeless and housing crisis today is a direct result of the high cost of housing, the lack of living wage jobs, and the lack of affordable housing stock for millions of individuals and families living on a fixed income, or no income at all. It’s also the direct result of generations (centuries) of discrimination and structural racism that has used housing as a weapon against the poor, mostly people of color.
What keeps us from having the resources to support real housing justice remains corporate welfare, taxing the rich and prioritizing housing in our federal budgets.
That’s all great, but what more can I do to support the housing justice movement in my community?
Supporting the housing justice movement in your community can look like a lot of different things. Maybe it’s working to be a vocal supporter of a local shelter or homeless services in a smaller community that historically has rejected such investments or being an outspoken advocate for affordable housing projects in your neighborhood, and city.
It could be writing your elected officials and communicating that housing for our most vulnerable populations is a top tier issue for you as a constituent.
It could mean researching and financially supporting organizations working towards and engaging in work to advance housing justice agendas.
Maybe it’s finding ways to approach or interject and change the hearts and minds of the people in your social circles who may put down people experiencing homelessness or project a false narrative about the larger issue.
It might be introducing your kids (or family members) to giving a donation or doing volunteer work in the community by supporting organizations working to provide people with a safe place to call home. Did you know when young people are taught about giving and volunteering at a young age the likelihood of them doing so for the rest of their life skyrockets? Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about things like compassion and empathy, and why things like homelessness exist. (You can start by using the talking points from above.)
Other ways you might think about showing your solidarity is by spreading the word about your local street paper or about your favorite housing justice organization through your social media network.
You can also buy someone on the streets a cup of coffee and recognize that they are a human being by simply saying hello. I personally carry around a case of water, some hand warmers and a box of granola bars in the trunk of my car to offer people I might see struggling when I’m out and about. This is something any one of us can do.
At the end of the day, the best thing we can do for folks on the streets is to not give up on people. We mustn’t ever give up on the idea that housing is a necessary component of society for our most vulnerable citizens, regardless of the political atmosphere or circumstance we collectively might find ourselves in.
"Offering compassion without judgment is one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do,” the late and great housing organizer Genny Nelson from Portland, Oregon once told me. “Keeping at it day after day, week after week and maintaining that compassion will be the hardest. The only way to find the space to carry on is to practice non-violence and to believe in love.”
Regardless of own personal experience in life, we all have the opportunity to work towards choosing love, and empathy and compassion and non-violence over hate and fear and judgement and exclusion. We must continue our long fight to seek justice in our communities, always.
Housing remains a human right.
Israel Bayer is an award-wining writer and housing advocate and works with the International Network of Street Papers.