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Christine Schanes

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Homelessness Myth #19: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Posted: 02/08/11 01:12 AM ET

Imagine for a moment the image of a homeless person. How do you feel? Are you imagining someone you respect?

Many of us do not respect homeless people. And by "us," I mean "housed people." Often, having respect for homeless people is only a myth.

At home with our families, at work surrounded by colleagues and even with friends, we may thoughtlessly use negative words, such as "bums" or "transients" to describe unhoused people. Our use of these words has become so prevalent that even homeless people use them to describe themselves.

For example, I saw a homeless man wearing overalls taking a shower at the beach two days ago. Standing in the cold weather under even colder running water, the homeless man made a great effort to wash. \As the homeless man finished his shower, he explained to an approaching housed person, "That's how a bum washes his jeans."

The word "homeless" is an adjective. There are homeless dogs and homeless cats. We need to remember our nouns. We need to be clear and accurate when we're speaking about a "homeless person." By avoiding the noun "person" when we're talking about someone who is unhoused, we're essentially dehumanizing the person about whom we're speaking.

Words count and we know that words can hurt.

In addition, while we may be sympathetic to housed people with various limitations, our empathy does not seem to extend to homeless people with the same limitations. It seems that many of us have become desensitized to the plight of homeless people through constant exposure to negative language and images in our culture. For example, our print, radio and TV media often contain many disrespectful and inaccurate references to "transients," when those homeless people are often born and raised in the same area in which they are currently homeless.

We may also show disrespect through our treatment of homeless people. Why else would we offer fewer services than are needed by them? We disrespect homeless people when we have insufficient shelter space for the number of homeless people within any municipality. We generally don't meet homeless people "where they are." In other words, we often ignore the reality of their situations and require that homeless people live up to our standards in order to get into shelters and/or receive services.

However, there is some very good news. The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego are now attempting to "meet homeless people where they are" by providing housing to 50 and 25, respectively, most-in-need homeless people regardless of their personal needs, habits and/or addictions. After these people are housed, appropriate services will be offered.

Why should we respect homeless people? We need to respect homeless people because they're people. Living without a home, money, modern conveniences and often a job, they're suffering more distress than many housed people have ever experienced.

Further, about 45 percent of homeless people are mentally ill. Does this diminish the respect that we owe them? No, because they're still people. Most of the time we are unaware that certain housed people that we know are mentally ill. Because of a number of factors, mental illness among housed people is often not as obvious as the mental illness of homeless people.

It seems to me that the issues of homelessness have been in existence long enough for homelessness to become a formal science. Although we don't offer enough shelter to meet the entire need, we now offer homeless people more housing assistance than ever before. Our service programs have become more effective over time and our statistical methods of counting homeless people have improved.

Therefore, it's time to review our language concerning homeless people, our cultural influences on the topic of homelessness and our treatment of homeless people so that we can recognize our biases. When we realize our negativities, we can make changes to reflect our enlightened state of mind.

Once we respect homeless people, our world will change for the better.

I look forward to your comments.


Contributor: Barbara Raymer Witzer, R-DMT, LMFT