How the non-homeless talk about homeless people

Betsy author headshot colorI knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was this bad!

I had a chance to ask over 500 people to write down the most classist comment they had ever heard. Because the host was Real Change, Seattle’s wonderful street paper, which is sold by homeless and formerly homeless vendors, lots of the classist comments were clueless things said about homeless people.

Two Real Change vendors reported these comments were said directly to them:

• “You can’t be homeless – you have a smart phone.”

• An apartment building owner who was giving me a ride in his Mercedes said, “If I didn’t have to subsidize you people, I could have 3 of these!!”

Most of the comments about homeless people to third parties blamed the victims in one way or another.  Most common was the allegation that homelessness is voluntary:

• “There is no reason for anyone to be homeless. There are plenty of resources out there.”

• About a Real Change vendor: “Why doesn’t he want more for himself?”

Those people will do anything to avoid paying rent.

In particular, the myth that living-wage jobs are abundant seems to be widespread:

• “If they want to make more money, they should just get better jobs. They are so entitled.”

• “I have no sympathy for people panhandling next to a Help Wanted sign.”

You just know any sentence beginning with “those people” is bound to be laden with stereotypes:

• “Those people choose to be homeless.”

• “Those people will do anything to avoid paying rent.”

The other common myth was that all homeless people are addicts, or can’t be trusted to spend money in constructive ways:

• “You should not give them any money because they will just use it to buy booze and drugs.”

Real Change staff report getting an earful about their jobs supporting homeless people’s empowerment and self-advocacy:

• “How can you work with THOSE people?!,” followed by either “I could never do that” or “You could be helping people who will help themselves.”

• “Why would they have vendors on the editorial committee? That’s not their business.”

You should not give them any money because they will just use it to buy booze and drugs.

The most basic facts about the cost of living and the logistics of survival seem to escape some makers of classist comments:

• “I thought about buying a [Real Change] paper, but the guy was drinking a Starbucks coffee, so I figured he was doing ok.”

• “They deserve to be homeless because they urinate outdoors and make a bad smell.”

What other group in society would be characterized by such grossly demeaning generalizations and slurs?:

• “They have no morals.”

• “Why are the poor allowed in downtown areas?”

• “I don’t support bums.”

To me, the scariest of all are the comments made by public officials, business owners and providers of social services, whose ignorant attitudes can do a lot more harm than random public opinions:

• A council member persistently asks the city to study whether homeless people in our city are moving here from other places.

• A retailer suggested, “Gather up the homeless, mentally ill, addicted people in Seattle and send them to ‘places of refuge’ where they would be required to work to earn their food & get better…to re join civil society.”

• “Food wouldn’t cost so much if you bought in bulk” – Human Services Department] case worker speaking to homeless person receiving food stamps

• “Hawaii State Rep. Tom Brower said, ‘If someone is sleeping at night on the bus stop, I don’t do anything, but if they are sleeping during the day, I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving.’’

If you hear comments like these, what do you say? One handy source of myth-breaking facts is the Coalition for the Homeless’s FAQ sheet.

Dehumanizing the poorest and most desperate people among us is a symptom of how calloused some American hearts have become. If we think of this hardening as a disorder, what’s the cure?

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