Monday, August 18, 2008


When people ask me, "What's it like to be homeless?" I cringe - mostly because it's a thoughtless question. If anyone would take even a moment to think about it, they would come to the conclusion that homelessness sucks. They certainly don't need me to tell them that.

But then every once in a great while, someone comes up with a thoughtful question/s. I'll post the latest here, and will ruminate in it for a while. Then answer at a later date.

but now, for you to think some on it too. Here is what was recently asked:

I really enjoy your perspective on homelessness and the information you provide regarding the economics and politics of the situation. I found your site while researching a paper for school. I'm a student in public health who got into the program primarily because of the volunteer work I've done overseas. My first career is in business, so I'm hoping with some education on health and safety along with my practical experience, I will have the right set of skills to help people in a practical, sustainable manner.

Through a class, I became more aware of the unique combination of circumstances that prevent the homeless from becoming healthy and well. Especially medical issues that are so dificult to prevent and treat adequately when a person in homeless with few resources. I have an internship and thesis requirement coming up next year, and I'm looking at gaining a position with a group that works with the homeless.

With the price of gas, and the fact that I won't be working for pay during my internship, I started thinking about locations. You have written about the places the homeless congregrate, specifically on the chicken/egg theory of what came first, the homeless people or the service providers. In Chicago it seems that most of the service providers are in sketchy neighborhoods, many that are in transistion and facing the pressures you have written about such as high end real estate being built in proximity to the homeless.

So, I want to stop and say here.....if anything I write is inappropriate, please consider me ignorant and in need of education and not as someone promoting some agenda. I think I'm trying to formulate an idea for bridging the gap between people.

I started thinking about the barriers between the "rich" and the homeless. And I realized that a main component is fear. Those who are well off have fear at many levels, although they may not admit to it. Fear of being hurt by someone, fear of being stolen from or losing value on their homes, and I think, most of all, fear of "there but for the grace of God go I". I don't want to look at it because one of my greatest fears is being in that situation.

I think most want to think of themselves as good people who are compassionate and that goes counter to "I don't want to see the dying homeless woman laying by my fence". I think many WANT to help, but are afraid because they don't know what will happen. Will they get attacked, will they gain a stalker, will they get sick or harmed in some way, will they somehow make things worse? And I think this is because this person is so different from them that they don't understand their thought processes.

For example, in the suburbs here, homeless shelters are more accepted. And I think that is because the suburban homeless "look" more like the residents here and there aren't an overwhelming number of homeless people. Because they look like what the public understands, there is more compassion and less fear. But, when a suburban white businessperson is faced with a black addict panhandling on the street downtown, this person is VERY different, not understood, and thereby feared and rejected. Is what I'm saying making any sense?

I'm thinking that if homelessness was personalized, there may be more tolerance and assistance provided by those with resources. Granted, it has to be the "right" kind of spokesperson. You, for example, don't come across as threatening. Your picture looks like any person I'd pass on the street without a second thought, and you are well spoken. Homed people can identify you and hear your message because they aren't afraid of you.

There will always be judgemental people who can't get beyond the choices someone made in their lives, and at some level think these folks deserve what they get. But I'm wondering if I can reduce the fear level of the people with resources who WANT to help but who are not sure how to safely--could that increase compassion and tolerance and the willingness to assist?

I'm thinking about a program specifically aimed at increasing the comfort level of the public. How to help in a sustainable and safe manner. I guess I'm trying to turn this around and instead of focusing on the problems of the homeless. focus on the problems of the public's perceptions. What do you think?