The homeless are more like you and me than we think

March 23, 1994|By Felicity S. Northcott

WE CAN spot one of them at a hundred yards. Their torn bags of meager belongings are tucked under their arms as they wander aimlessly around the streets. Their bizarre behavior is a testament to the unheard voices they respond to. We have come to recognize these people as typifying the urban homeless.

The visual cues we use to characterize and identify them are accompanied by opinions and stereotypes that shape our behavior, both as individuals and as a society, toward the homeless. The opinions are fed by the plethora of statistical data about who the homeless are, where they come from and how much it costs to care for them. Unfortunately, stereotypes are often blinding, and statistics are often found in the company of their cousins, lies and damn lies.

Homelessness in America has been imbued with misconceptions of monumental proportion. For example, many people still believe that the homeless are the survivors of psychiatric hospitals closed in the 1970s and '80s. The number of homeless are either undercounted or overcounted, depending on who is doing the counting. The homeless, as a group, are seen as social misfits. There are many more.

Everyone who encounters homeless people has assumed the responsibility for the perpetuation of one or more of the fictions surrounding homelessness. Ultimately, by adhering to stereotypes about the homeless, we mold public and private response to homelessness as a national social phenomenon. However, in the long run qualitative research among the homeless has called into question several of the most commonplace myths about homelessness.

Myth No. 1: Homeless people are neither producers nor consumers. They are involved in the national, state and local economy only insofar as they are a burden on it.

The homeless are consumers. They buy food, clothing, radios, tools, work boots and other goods at businesses around the city. Much of the money spent by the homeless does come from state and federally funded programs. For instance, food stamps are sold so that the homeless can have cash available. But the money is reinvested in the local economy through spending. Small businesses in many Baltimore neighborhoods rely on those who receive public money.

Myth No. 2: Homeless people are social isolates who are all estranged from their families. They lack the necessary social skills to engage in meaningful social intercourse.

First, simply being able to survive on the streets requires amazing fortitude and personal character. Furthermore, and this especially true for men, sleeping in a shelter does not necessarily mean that contact with friends and relatives has been terminated. The use of services for the homeless by certain men may in fact be part of a larger economic survival strategy. Moreover, using a shelter does not necessarily mean that men do not maintain friendships in their home community. Nor does it indicate an inability to develop friendships on the street. Many men use the services of shelters in their own neighborhoods precisely so they can maintain social and personal networks.

Myth No. 3: Homeless people are uneducated and do not have the needed skills to enter the job market.

A recent survey at one men's shelter showed that 46 percent of the respondents had either graduated from high school or received a G.E.D. According to 1990 census data, this is a much higher proportion than in the Baltimore population as a whole: 27.4 percent. The 15 percent of respondents who claimed to have some college education is close to the citywide percentage, too. These men are not universally uneducated or unskilled. In many cases they are not even unemployed.

Stereotypes are funny things. We use them for a variety of reasons. Stereotypes make it easier to justify our behavior. They take on an innate truth value that relieves us of any sense of personal responsibility for the way people are treated. The stereotype of the urban homeless person as uneducated, socially isolated and economically parasitic does the same thing.

By assuming that all homeless people look and behave similarly, can ignore those who do not fit our characterization. We simply don't see those who don't conform to our stereotype. If we can't see them, we can ignore them.

If homeless people are not consumers or producers, we can classify them as pariahs. We can justify our anger at the money spent on them by dismissing the fact that they may be as intimately tied to the local economy as we are.

If homeless people are social misfits, we can neglect them when they ask us for something. Humans are social beings, and these people are not social. If their families have given up on them, then we, as strangers, can be equally unforgiving.

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