Stereotypes of Homelessness,
and How We Maintain Them

My own theory for the stereotype of "homeless person" is: most shelters and other programs to help the homeless, including training and work programs, require you to be clean&sober, able to work with people, and of good personal hygiene. So all the clean, sober, drug-free, sociable and hard-working homeless are inside somewhere, doing something to get themselves out of this condition. Therefore the only "homeless" that people see are unsociable, filthy, raving alcoholics or drug addicts. (Who also need a way to get off the street and back to some human dignity, but it takes a lot more investment of time and energy, so most rehab programs prefer to concentrate their efforts where they will pay off faster.) By the way: a lot of the visible folks on the street, at least in Seattle, aren't even homeless. Some of them are alcoholics or addicts whose addiction drives them to leave house and family regularly and go downtown to hang with their buddies. Others -- most of the panhandlers and the stranded sailors who need taxi money to get back to their ship and the stranded motorists who need money for gas -- are working people with homes and cars; this is their job.

Anyway -- that's one of the reasons streetpapers like Real Change have articles about vendors and other homeless folks and print poetry by vendors and other homeless folks and have poetry readings and such. To get the image of the "hidden homeless" out there in front of people and help crumble the stereotype.

In an interview just after I got into housing, I said that I was actually going to miss being homeless. I loved being obviously smart, articulate, charming and attractive -- then telling someone I was homeless. And watching them deal with that.

For the record, I don't see anything wrong with the phrase, "homeless people". I don't even get upset over references to "the homeless" or "the poor." Unless it becomes obvious that the person using such language is thinking of an alien form of humanoid organism, hatched by spontaneous generation from sidewalk pavement. Then I will make a point of people who have homes and people who don't.

As in most human conversations, you gotta take intent into account.

But if the person you are addressing is offended by a particular term, common politeness is to address them with what they are more comfortable with. There are people who resent being called "homeless people". They are people, damn it! People who don't have homes right now.

I know one woman who has lived in a shelter for several years now, while she works at a low-paying, part-time job that was the only thing she could find straight out of college, and struggles to pay off her student loans, because the ethics she was brought up with say she can't improve her living conditions until she pays off her debts. And she did make an attempt to apply for public assistance -- at least food stamps, which would have made life easier -- but she didn't get it because she refused to use the word "homeless" or let herself be called "homeless".

When I was in the shelters, I was warned that some of the women don't want to be greeted if you see them on the streets. They don't want it known publicly that they sleep in a homeless shelter.

One of the editors at Real Change is a formerly homeless woman who works as an ESL tutor, and is still on the poverty borderlines. The principal of her school posted one of her articles, and while everyone was admiring it, one of the other teachers leaned toward her and whispered in shock, "You aren't poor are you?"

Ruth was equally shocked. All of the teachers are poor, including the one who was talking to her!

But this culture has sold and developed an attitude that respectable people aren't poor. Poverty or wealth is a choice after all, says the attitude, and anyone decent and sensible chooses wealth, so if you are poor there is something wrong with you.

Therefore large numbers of those who are poor and/or homeless consider it shameful, which it is, but they consider it their own shame, which it is not. And because of this they continue to perpetuate the stereotypes of the poor and the homeless by the way they try to avoid being stereotyped. "See, I am not lazy, or drunken, or crazy -- therefore I am not poor, or homeless!"

I am not going to forcibly "out" anyone who has found a way to blend into the wider community by not revealing themselves as poor, or homeless. But I encourage everyone who is up for it to be open about your poverty, open about your living quarters or lack of them -- and open about your intelligence, your education, the work you do, every greatness you have.

I love this quote from Nelson Mandela:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking, so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

"We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

That is true for everyone in every socio-economic condition, in every age group and class of society, in every persuasion of gender and lifestyle.

And the way to shatter all the stereotypes is to live by that quote.

Anitra Freeman Column Directory

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