A One-Sided Story: Society’s One-Dimensional View of Homelessness - by Katiannah C. R. Henken
Katiannah C. R. Henken
Department of English, A-B Tech Community College
ENG 112: Writing/Research in the Discipline
April 27, 2020
An issue exists within society in which individuals who have no permanent dwelling are judged as lesser. In an effort to demonstrate the seriousness of this issue, this paper explores several examples of how this stigma manifests itself. Examples given include the judgment of homeless individuals due to their lack of permanent residence as well as the two-fold issue of the blaming of these individuals for their circumstances due to the disregard of the true causes of their situations. The lack of compassion extended towards homeless individuals is explored through the context of the discrimination they encounter within the healthcare system as well as the lack of consideration that is granted to the personal stories behind each homelessness case, as highlighted through a comparison drawn with a literary work. The case is presented that the mistreatments extended towards the homeless population ultimately contribute to the perpetuation of their circumstances by communicating to them that society has no place for them, this message potentially diminishing their hope that their circumstances can ever be changed.
A One-Sided Story: Society’s One-Dimensional View of Homelessness
Homelessness is a pervading issue across the world. Research estimates indicate that there are nearly five-million individuals who reside in temporary housing, in their vehicle, or on the street in Europe and the United States alone (Petit et al., 2019; Wen et al. 2007). Homelessness, however, is only one piece of these people’s journeys. Each of these individuals has an intricate story that has made them who they are, often involving some form of pain or tragedy that has resulted in their homelessness status. Society, however, rarely takes time to consider the complex journeys these people have experienced, too frequently seeing only their circumstances. Society has inexplicably linked human value with an individual’s living status, and in turn millions of people are viewed as lesser. Though strides have been made towards better government provisions for homeless populations in recent years, negative stigma persists on the individual level, perpetuating unfounded judgment and blaming of this population for their circumstances. Such judgment and stigma have far-reaching consequences in these individuals’ lives, including the dehumanizing and devaluing of them as people, the disregarding of their personal stories along with the true cause of their trying circumstances, and even the experience of discrimination when they seek medical services; all these treatments likely perpetuate their struggle by contributing to the feeling of hopelessness they already experience.
The issue is not that homelessness is being ignored, but that those who are homeless are not being seen as individual human beings of value.
Governments around the world are striving to create better programs to look after their homeless citizens, and there is significant interest in big picture, government intervention for the benefit of this struggling population (Petit et al. 2019, p. 2). However, it is not in the big picture where the issue resides, but on the individual bases. In a nine-month telephone survey conducted across eight European countries, it was determined that despite “strong support for increased government action and more effective solutions for Europe’s growing homelessness crisis, there also remain public opinion barriers rooted in enduring negative perceptions” (Petit et al., 2019, p. 2). Even as people wish for the homelessness crises to be addressed, homeless individuals are still thought of as lesser due to their lack of permanent housing. Blanton (2009) discusses this very issue in her TED Talk when she relays several realities she learned through her experience with homelessness, one being “that society equates living in a permanent structure, even a shack, with having value as a person” (0:37). This warped ascription of value or lack of value within society is one of the factors that leads directly to the blind judgment and devaluing of homeless populations. Homeless individuals are viewed by society through tinged glasses of judgment. Too often, all that is seen of them as individuals is their homelessness status, reducing them to one-dimensional human beings with little value. No longer are they complex human beings worthy of in-depth consideration, but merely a struggling person on a street corner, their intrinsic human value diminished due to their lack of permanent residence. This kind of hasty disregard can only serve to amplify the feelings of hopelessness already experienced by this population. As they attempt to navigate through these already near-impossible circumstances, this negative stigma which they encounter communicates that society has no respect for them, thus damaging their hope, and perhaps even desire, of renewing their place within it.
The homeless are not only judged for their circumstances but are too often blamed for them also. This acts to perpetuate the feelings of societal exile experienced by the homeless population. In a study conducted in the United States, “around 57% [of] respondents believed laziness to play a role in homelessness” (Petit et al., 2019, p. 10). Another study indicated that “homelessness continued to be stigmatized as an undesirable marginal group thought to have become homeless due to personal failures” (Petit et al., 2019, p. 3). A vast portion of society, then, feels that the homeless person’s choices are the direct cause for the great poverty that they find themselves in. The true reason behind individual homeless cases are rarely considered, and therein lies the issue. If time is granted to consider why an individual might be forced to live on the streets, job loss and a myriad of other personal and uncontrollable circumstances may be recognized as the major influencing forces. Potential impact factors are nearly endless, many of which involve tragedy more than personal choice. Research into the factors leading to homelessness reveal “substance use, mental illness, chronic disabilities, along with several demographic and social variables” as major contributors (Creech, 2015, p. 624). Another study explored the connection between childhood abuse and the age homeless individuals first became homeless, finding that “emotional abuse, physical abuse, and emotional neglect were associated with first experiencing homelessness during youth” (Mar, 2014, p. 1). Evidently, hardship is more likely the cause of homelessness than flippant personal choice or laziness. Circumstances such as abuse, mental illness, or job loss enter people’s worlds and force them from their homes, from stability and security. They have not chosen these circumstances, and yet they are judged for them, forcing them to the outside of society and limiting their hope of ever being able to enter back in.
The stigmatization of homeless individuals results in far reaching consequences within their lives, including the limiting of their access to essential care.
As they attempt to meet their basic need of medical aid, the homeless population often encounters discrimination within the healthcare system. In a research study designed to explore how homeless individuals perceived they were treated when seeking medical attention, the results indicated the presence of discrimination within the healthcare system. Many of the subjects stated they felt dehumanized and discriminated against due to their homeless status, the study finding that “feelings of dehumanization were frequently evoked by unwelcoming health care encounters, suggesting that participants felt treated as an object and in a manner not recognizing their worth and personhood” (Wen. et al., 2007, p. 1013). One of the men participating in the study put this feeling to words when he said, “it makes me subhuman, like that [sic] I don’t really belong in society” (Wen et al., 2017, 1013). Healthcare discrimination towards homeless populations is even recognized within the medical field; an article published by the British Medical Association (2019) acknowledged “the mental health barriers, problems and stigma homeless people experience when trying to access any healthcare” (p. 8). Even as they pursue help, these struggling individuals encounter barriers due to their homelessness status. These barriers constructed by society’s judgment serve to undermine homeless individual’s efforts at changing their circumstances by limiting their access to essential human needs and creating a sense of insurmountable social divide between them and the rest of society. As society continues to stigmatize these individuals, it sends a message that they are unwelcome, cutting off their hope of eventual change and exacerbating the struggles they already experience.
Another way in which society’s stigma towards homeless individuals evidences itself is in the lack of consideration for their personal stories. Like all of humanity, every homeless individual has walked a unique journey that has led them to where they are today, but the discrediting of their personal value due to their living circumstances results in these stories going unheard and undervalued. In her poem “Homeless,” (1995), Kono demonstrates the formative and affecting power of past experiences specifically in relation to an individual’s journey to homelessness. “Homeless” is a narrative poem in which the speaker relays the story of her son’s homelessness, starkly stating that “My son lives on the streets now” (Kono, 1995, line 1). The poem covers pieces of both the mother and son’s current circumstances, but also reaches back to discuss the past, most notably with stories of the boy’s childhood. It is the pieces of the son’s childhood story which evidence the shaping power of past experiences, as well as the importance of considering them when developing opinions about others. When the reader learns of how the young boy “rescued [the speaker] / when he was a child and said, / ‘Mommy, don’t cry’” (Kono, 1995, lines 12-14), they begin to come to know him, to see him as a kind spirited person. As the poem progresses to how he “brought tea / into the room of his father’s acrimony— / brave, standing tall in the forest / fire of his father’s scorn” (Kono, 1995, lines 14-17), the reader is shown that this person experienced emotional abuse at the hand of his father, and this knowledge results in a stirring of compassion towards him. The reader would not care nearly as much about this person’s current circumstances without the consideration of what he has been through. Because of the tumultuous nature of the boy’s childhood, rife with the “scorn” of his father and potentially his father’s abuse of his mother–as the need for “rescue” and the presence of the mother’s tears indicate–the reader feels empathy for this person who has endured great struggle. When the poem moves back to the present, and the speaker compares her son to the “street bums on Mamo Street” (Kono, 1995, line 26), speaking of him derisively by emphasizing that “he’s like them“ (Kono, 1995, line 27), the reader can maintain their position of empathy towards the son due to their knowledge of his past trauma. Kono’s poem “Homeless” demonstrates how the knowledge of someone’s past struggles influences the perceptions of them in the present. This point highlights that the lack of consideration extended to homeless individual’s personal stories contributes to the quick and often false judgments so frequently directed towards them. Society’s disregard of these people’s personal stories cripples their chances at having empathy and understanding extended to them, further limiting their ability to be seen as human beings of equal value as the rest of the world and to feel as if they have a place within it.
Millions of people across the world currently reside in temporary housing or on the streets, struggling to keep on living due to circumstances outside of their control.
Within each one of them resides an intricate personal story and inherent human value, both of which are too often disregarded by society. Barriers are erected between them and basic needs such as healthcare and the recognition of personal value, all because they do not possess four walls to go home to at the end of the day. It is time that society recognizes that this lack that homeless populations are so judged for is, in actuality, loss. These individuals have lost stability, safety, and, most dangerously, hope of leaving their struggle behind them. If society makes the effort to recognize these people as individuals and to consider all they may have been through, it will quickly become evident that the dolling out of hasty judgement has no place within the equation. Instead of stigma and discrimination, society has the power to offer these hurting people compassion, understanding, and respect. The extension of these basic human considerations has the potential to communicate to these individuals that they need not remain in these circumstances forever, that they need not give up hope.
Blanton, B. (2009, July). The year I was homeless [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/becky_blanton_the_year_i_was_homeless?referrer
British Medical Association (2019). What you can do to directly help the homeless people in your care: With the number of homeless people’s visits to emergency departments soaring, simply showing kindness could make all the difference. Emergency Nurse (2014+), 27(3), 8-9. doi:10.7748/en.27.3.8.s8
Creech, S., Johnson, E., Borgia, M., Bourgault, C., Redihan, S., O'Toole, T. P., (2015). Identifying mental and physical health correlates of homelessness among first-time and chronically homeless veterans. Journal of Community Psychology, 43(5), 619-627. doi:10.1002/jcop.21707
Kono, J. (1995). Homeless. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/141947/homeless-590a0240aca5b
Mar, M. Y., Linden, I. A., Torchalla, I., Li, K., Krausz, M., (2014). Are Childhood Abuse and Neglect Related to Age of First Homelessness Episode Among Currently Homeless Adults? Violence and Victims, 29(6), 999-1013. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.VV-D-13-00025
Petit J., Loubiere, S., Tinland, A., Vargas-Moniz, M., Spinnewijn, F., Manning, R., et al. (2019). European public perceptions of homelessness: A knowledge, and attitudes practices survey. PLoS One, 14(9), 1-16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0221896
Wen, Chuck K., Hudak, Pamela L., Hwang, Stephen W. (2007). Homeless People's Perceptions of Welcomeness and Unwelcomeness in Health. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(7), 1011-7. doi:10.1007/s11606-007-0183-7