Why don’t people have sympathy?
With many Americans but a few paychecks away from homelessness it seems that most Americans would have a certain enhanced sympathy toward homeless people. However, it seems quite the opposite.
Even as people see those around them, people they were once friends with, lose their homes, the fears and hatred remain and get directed at former friends and relatives. Some people fear and hate those without homes so much that even if they know them. Some even apply those hatreds and fears to their own elderly parents, the very people who once cared for them, when they fall on hard times. They’d sooner believe that someone they knew and loved has become a bad or lazy person than that poverty can happen to good people!
Homeless people are despised or disdained, labeled as lazy and worthless. I don’t think this is because Americans are insensitive or unable to feel empathy. I have a few theories as to why they are so despised.
The Idea That They Get Government Checks
From comments I have heard and read around the internet, many people believe that every homeless person is getting a big, fat government check each month. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many don’t get anything from the government. Most of those who do receive aid only receive food assistance which is, at most $200 worth per month for an individual and they can only spend it on food. Most shelters are funded by donations, not taxes.
The amount of tax dollars that do go to programs directed at homelessness is about $4 billion dollars, mostly directed towards preventing families with children on the verge of homelessness from becoming homeless and not towards programs to help already homeless people. Already homeless people seldom get aid beyond food assistance.
Some elderly people living on the street don’t even collect the Social Security income they’ve paid into all their lives. Many disabled people lose their homes and because the application process for Disability is lengthy and often requires the ability to be contacted by phone and mail and the ability to go to appointments, sometimes a hundred or more miles away they often never collect the Disability they paid into all their working lives. If one is disabled, it generally takes several years to begin collecting that benefit. Most Americans don’t have enough money saved up to live on without working for two to five years so many with disabilities become homeless.
The majority of mentally ill homeless people are not getting any tax money, either. Most of the folks too mentally ill to hold down a job are too mentally ill to navigate the aid applications.
That guy you see picking through the garbage isn’t getting thousands of your hard earned tax dollars, he’s really living off that garbage.
People Fear Becoming Homeless Themselves
The Average American is only one illness or several paychecks from it
If people are beset by woes brought on by the economy and they actually believe that lack of jobs and affordable housing cause homelessness then they’ll have to fear it. If people believe that illness, age, or disability cause people to lose their homes then they’ll have to fear becoming losing theirs. By sticking to the belief that only people who are bad can find themselves living on the street, they can insulate themselves from any fear of it.
In fifteen years of working with homeless people I learned that the majority of newly un-housed folks are shocked speechless that it happened to them. Most of them hang onto their own fear and hatred of homeless people for quite a while, even though they are far more likely to come to harm at the hands of a criminal with a home than at the hands of a homeless person.
To feel safe from it themselves, many people with homes feel they must create a quality that defines homeless people. They invent a quality they don’t feel they possess so they can feel that as long as they don’t possess that quality they can hold it up as a magic shield against their fear of losing their home.
Beggars, Panhandlers, and Bums
For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of people living on the street is panhandlers. The only faces of homelessness most average citizens see are those of the ragged folks who beg for change on downtown streets.
Only a very small percentage of homeless people beg. For instance, on any given day in downtown Chicago you can find about fifteen to thirty people begging for change on the sidewalks. However, Chicago has somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 homeless residents, the vast majority of whom never beg. The beggars and panhandlers people have come to see as the face of homelessness make up probably less than one percent of all homeless people.
The people who beg are often those with mental illnesses or addiction issues, people who may not even be aware that other choices exist. I think many people are deeply disturbed by panhandlers because it’s hard to pretend they don’t exist.
And not only do very few homeless people beg, some panhandlers actually have homes!
Even Mom Must Be Bad Now
Not too long ago, I helped an elderly woman re-connect with her family via the Internet. They had so many irrational fears about their own mother that they trusted me, a total stranger, more than the woman who gave them birth.
Now that wouldn’t be too surprising if she had been an addict or had abused them when they were children but she hadn’t. She had actually put her two children through college and just finished paying it off a few years ago. They admitted she had been a very good mom and had always treated them well. The reasoning for not taking her in that her daughter gave me was that she didn’t want her to be a bad influence on her children, the woman’s grandchildren.
We had a bit of a back and forth email interaction, the daughter and I, and I tried to pin down what the fear was. The daughter had made all sorts of assumptions about her mom. Mom hadn’t turned into a knife-wielding madwoman addicted to crack, she just couldn’t afford her apartment anymore after her hours were cut back and she couldn’t find another job. Thankfully, this story had a happy ending and the daughter decided to let her mother come stay with her in her nice home in the suburbs.