“You can’t go home?”
“Don’t you have family?”
“So you’re really homeless?”
No, because I’m homeless. Yes. Also, yes. I can’t count how many times I’ve had this exact same conversation over the past year and a half. Their reactions are the same each time. Dismay that I, a homeless person, do not have a home to return to. Confusion that a family could be so dysfunctional as to not be able to (or want to) help a member struggling with housing stability. Slight disgust that they were talking to a gross homeless person this entire time and didn’t even know it.
At first it always took me off guard. Despite the increasing number of homeless people in this country the general public is still somehow not used to interacting with us. So when they do actually speak to us they tend to forget basic manners and proceed to bombard us with personal questions about how we became homeless. In this entire time that I have been homeless I have had few people ask me beforehand if it was okay to ask me about my personal life.
It’s just another small indignity homeless people face. The casual invasion of our privacy, redundant questions about our housing status, and forcing us to relive painful events of our pasts for whatever purpose it serves the person asking the questions. I remain confused about what exactly the goal is in these interactions. They’ve rarely resulted in anything productive. The only conclusion that I can come to is that people just refuse to believe that a homeless person can exist outside of the very narrow stereotype they have about us. As a result I have spent a lot of time explaining to adults how as a homeless person I can’t just “go home.” This isn’t just some rebellion against my family or society. I really don’t have a home. I’ve had to dispel them of the notion that everyone has a stable and caring family they can return to when life gets hard.
Among the stereotypes associated with homeless people is that we are failed adults. That somewhere along the line we stopped doing what needed to be done to support ourselves. Because of this we are often dealt with in an infantilizing way. People think it is acceptable to tell us to do things, not ask for our input into what course our lives should take, or give us advice that is often useless. This brings me to my next point.
Besides the bombardment of questions, you should also expect a heaping load of unsolicited advice and opinions about your situation. I am commonly told about jobs (I never ask about) I need to apply for even though I already work. I have had to sit through lectures about lowering my standards and not being too prideful to accept certain forms of work. As if me being homeless comes as a result of not wanting to work instead of untreated mental illness, generational poverty, employment discrimination, and losing a major source of income.
I have gotten into arguments with people about why I refuse to go to most shelters. They can’t bring themselves to trust my judgement even though I am more likely to have knowledge on shelters than someone who has never lived in one or who only goes to a shelter to volunteer on holidays. On top of this people will also insist on taking direct action in your life, oftentimes making things even worse.
It all goes back to housed people seeing us as less deserving of the respect given to other adults. Because they stereotype us as incapable they believe it’s okay to step in and take over our lives without even bothering to ask permission to do this. I have had to cut ties with a few people who didn’t understand that needing help didn’t grant them ownership over me.
While the general public believes that homeless people are inept and incapable of taking care of ourselves, they also believe that many of us are these stealthy scammers feigning poverty because we’re too lazy to work. Because who wouldn’t want to bare their entire life story to get help? Who doesn’t want to beg for money so they could eat or rent a room for the night? It’s not at all dehumanizing to ask for help in a society that is obsessed with the myth of pulling oneself out of poverty by sheer grit and hard work.
Most of us are too stressed and sleep deprived to invest the amount of energy needed to scam someone. Our days are filled with either work, finding a place that will allow us to occupy space, or trying to dig ourselves out of the sinking hole that is homelessness. And if we’re being perfectly honest, many of you don’t have that much to scam to begin with. A lot of you are just one job loss or medical emergency from sleeping on the same streets as us.
Beggars Can’t Be Choosers
This is an old and pervasive mindset that many people just accept without question. They believe that because our situations are desperate that we are not in a position to object to anything that is presented to us – whether it’s food that doesn’t adhere to our diet, worn-out clothing, or another care package loaded with toiletries that we may not be able to use if we don’t have access to showers. Since homeless people are seen as sub-human, we are not considered worthy enough of enjoying the same things other people enjoy. But we are deserving. Our status as homeless people doesn’t take away our humanity.
Homeless people don’t need for strangers to dig into our personal backgrounds. We don’t need to be given advice that doesn’t pertain to our situation or to be given leftovers no one else wants. We deserve the same respect and consideration as everyone else. If someone is really committed to helping us, they would talk to us and find out what our needs are. Then they would work within their capabilities to assist us. And they would do all of this without demeaning us, diminishing our abilities, or commanding us to do as they see best.
I’m still working towards being stable and donating $5 or more to my PayPal will go a long way to helping me. paypal: firstname.lastname@example.org