“The Homeless”, a title that should only describe a person’s living situation, but often describes so much more. On the one hand, being part of the homeless population automatically means sleep deprivation, instability, the daily challenge of finding what you need and so much more. Unfortunately, that is only the objective side of homelessness, the things that can be observed and measured. There’s also a subjective side that can be even more destructive.
Sociologists and others talk about “Labeling Theory” which states among other things that the label a society places on a group within society becomes a shorthand for and an oversimplification of everyone in that group. When someone becomes part of “The Homeless”, that person finds that society no longer sees them as an individual. Instead, they are now simply part of a mass with no identity of their own. Worse yet, because of American culture’s emphasis on individual responsibility and tendency to downplay individual circumstances, those who end up homeless for whatever reason also find themselves judged by society for their situation. Worst of all, because the majority of the homeless in the U.S. grew up here, they share this cultural outlook, blaming themselves for being homeless and forgetting who they are as individuals.
Among all the other problems the homeless face, the emotional toll of being a nameless, faceless “homeless” is one of the worst. Even as I write this article, I know the current trend among social service providers is to talk about “those who are experiencing homeless” as a way of avoiding the dehumanization of slapping a label on an entire group. But even if I never applied the word homeless to any one individual, it would not change the dynamic of how our minds work.
When most of us see a “homeless” person, that is all we see. As Labeling Theory applied to homelessness explains:
One goes, often quite suddenly, from being a person with a set of socially acceptable identities, to being “homeless”, an identity that trumps, if not obliterates, all others.At Home of the Street: People, Poverty and the Hidden Culture of Homelessness
On seeing a homeless individual, people rarely see a great musician, painter, mathematician, theologian, dedicated volunteer or any other aspect of that person’s life. And yet so often they think they know that person’s story, or at least enough of it to judge them or feel pity for them.
Just for fun, do a search of “Famous homeless people” and see who comes up. As you look at the list, ask yourself, “The last time I saw a panhandler, did I think they might:
- Revolutionize world technology, as Steve Jobs did
- Win an Oscar, as Halle Berry did
- Change political discourse across the world, as George Orwell did
- Become a world-renown singer, actress, writer and activist as Eartha Kitt did?”
All of this to say that the homeless are not just “The Homeless”. They are individuals who each took their own path to where they are now and will each take their own path to whatever comes next. Each one is a blessed individual with their own story, their own strengths and their own struggles.
This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.