The discussion here…
…highlights one of the biggest disparities I’ve noticed between Washington, D.C., and other parts of the United States. (Please read the discussion before continuing, and if you can sit through a 20-minute online video, I'm sure that's also informative...I couldn't watch the video on which Elizabeth Barrette commented.)
My comment is that it's interesting to see how other LJers' comments reflect the different mental impressions they've formed of "homeless people." It would be even more interesting if EB were to poll all respondents about how much time they've spent around homeless people in a big city. I believe that Mitch Snyder, a sincere man if not the smartest guy in Washington, honestly believed that a majority of homeless people are working people or retirees who've been evicted from their homes following rent hikes, because in Washington a lot of them (if not a solid majority) really were. I also know that people in smaller cities and towns have trouble visualizing the homeless population this way because, in the 1980s when the Community for Creative Non-Violence was my official charity and I actually worked there, I was reliably informed that D.C.'s homeless population was very different from the homeless population in, e.g., Cleveland, Ohio; I already knew that it was totally different from what, e.g., Kingsport, Tennessee, has in the way of a homeless population. My guess is that the people typing in things like "homeless people are insane" come from places like Kingsport.
In most of the U.S., most of the people who are sane enough to remember where their home is can have homes. (In order to collect federal funding, some oh-so-helpful types in the school systems sometimes succeed in redefining “homeless” as meaning “living in an older house,” with defects like, shudder, gasp, wallpaper; this allows them to claim that there are homeless people in southwestern Virginia. It also unnecessarily embarrasses people who like their old houses, partly for their yuppie-repellent value thank you very much. It also shows that the majority of people in southwestern Virginia know nothing about homelessness or homeless people.)
Although the demographics are changing as this generation die out, homeless people in low-rent areas have long tended to be people reacting to treatments offered for various “mental problems,” like insomnia and boredom, in the mid-twentieth century. These people have severe cognitive impairment, memory loss, perceptual distortion, and chronic neuromuscular spasms. This type of homeless person is not competent to use a kitchen, bathroom, or key if provided with one, and is likely to destroy a house if offered the use of one. They are not autistic. They are more dangerous than even severely autistic patients, because they are more aggressive; they are less competent than patients with mild autism. Most of them were released from mental hospitals because they're too brain-damaged to be violent, but they can still wreak a fair bit of havoc; you wouldn't want them in your home or around your children. Therefore many people automatically define “homeless” as “insane.”
Of course, another large category of homeless people, the vast majority in my part of the world, are temporarily homeless. Maybe they have a home somewhere, but they are travelling or doing a job a hundred miles away from that home. Or they had a nice house, but it burned down. Or members of their immediate family have a home, but they can’t bear to live with those people any longer, so they’re out looking for another place to stay, whether they can afford one or not. These are the people likely to be in the minds of people who say that homeless shelters need to be more pleasant and respectful places.
Then, in our nation’s capital and apparently in some other cities, because the majority of people are quite well paid and there’s a big incentive to keep neighborhoods looking affluent, you really do meet a lot of people who become homeless simply because they’re not earning enough to pay their inflated rent. Property owners routinely raise the rent, to meet their expenses or to cover improvements to the property or just on general principles, and every month a few people who may actually be employed are unable to pay the rent and become homeless. Because they are competent and resourceful, these people can, as discussed in The Longings of Women, maintain themselves well enough that other people don’t realize they’re homeless. They may be living in their car or storage shed, but as long as they can charge the cell phone at work so it serves as an alarm clock, wash off the grime in a public restroom, wash their clothes in a public laundromat, etc., they seem just like ordinary members of the working class…because they are. People who have this type of homeless people in mind are likely to say (if they’re left-wingers) that “we” need to commandeer overpriced foreclosed homes for these people, or (if they’re whole-Bible Christians) that we need to reconsider the biblical model in which land permanently belonged to one family, could be sold only temporarily, and had to be shared with family members who were unable to provide for themselves.
How do you visualize homelessness? How does your mental image affect your opinions about homelessness as a social issue? If you watched the documentary about Anchorage, which type of homelessness did you see as most pervasive there, and what do you want to do about it?
(Jesus said, “What you have done for the least of these My brethren, you have done for Me.”)