I have a piece of paper that says I spent eight years sitting in higher education classes. I have money in the bank, even if it only garners a few bucks in interest each month. I own my own home (well, with the help of a bank). I live on the right side of the tracks where everyone looks the same and lives in the same kind of tract house.
And I don’t like you.
Your eyes are slanted. Your lips are too big. You’re too old to get the job done. You’re a bad driver. You’re too quiet and reserved. Too loud and obnoxious. You work in the back kitchen. You’ll never get into management. I don’t trust you. Too small. Too big. Too smart. Too feeble. Too lazy. Too ambitious.
Frankly, you just don’t look like me. The color of your skin. The shape of your face. The height of your body. I’m more comfortable with sameness. Not differences.
I guess that’s why racism, ageism, sexism, anybody-looks-different-ism is so acute in our multicultural society. Because there is always a majority group that thinks they are better than others. Even if, for the first time in this country’s history, we do not have a white male President. Our society of “ism” predominates our thoughts, if not our actions.
We discriminate against people. We project unfair stereotypes. We feel we are superior.
When we look at homelessness in this country, this same “ism” controls our perspectives.
You’re homeless? Well, I am better than you. I have a job. I pay my bills. I’ve worked hard all of my life to make it (even though my parents, or Uncle Sam, paid for my education). I am not lazy. I follow society’s rules. I could never become homeless, like you.
You’re living on the streets? Well, I don’t like you. You’re dirty. You’re dangerous. You just don’t look healthy. You’re using drugs. You’re a sex offender. You’re making my neighborhood look bad! Ruining our property values. Tracking in criminal elements.
You are lazy. Dirty. A freeloader.
I guess that’s why homelessness persists in this country. We can’t dispel those damn stereotypes. Maybe that’s why people would rather donate to a cause that helps homeless puppies than an agency that helps homeless people.
Sure, the new approach to addressing homelessness is to show cost-savings to society. If we get you off the street, we save money by no longer paying for your emergency room bills and law enforcement encounters.
But that doesn’t really address the quiet, underlying attitude of bigotry. We can still dislike you while helping you get off the streets. The truth is, we just don’t want to see you anymore.
It seems to me that, until we can overcome the perceived differences between us and them, the housed and the un-housed, our country will always struggle with homelessness.
Until then, maybe we should create a new category of bigotry: Homeless-ism.
Photo by Franco Folini.