The Homeless: Persistence of a Stereotype

We all know since Covid our world has changed drastically. Things we used to take for granted we now miss dearly; “Little Freedoms”. Depending on where you are in the world, your surroundings may have been impacted it more than others; for those of us lucky enough to live in developed countries, it has taught us to value our “privileges”. With strict restrictions in place, more and more we are learning to understand the pain and anxiety of being isolated from those we love and the things we used to do to help us balance our state of mind. Through it all however, there is a group of people who are often overlooked if not “discarded” (their needs and health). This group is one dear to my heart and to the heart of many; yet I dare say not many enough–they are “The Homeless”.

The “problem” of homelessness cannot be easily solved; although many have tried, the fact that the root of the problem differs from case to case, makes it extremely hard to find an “easy solution”. With that said, there is one thing we CAN do and that is be more “HUMANE” towards our homeless. There are lots of articles about homelessness and “videos” on people helping the homeless but rarely anything that concentrates on them as human beings and their dilemmas. A friend of mine who knows how much the subject means to me, forward me a “Thesis” by a Spanish Sociologist Ivan Parro, who studied “Development Studies & Social Sciences”. After reading his very lengthy but well written thesis, I decided to share some extracts of interest in hopes to help dissipate the antipathy many seem to feel towards the homeless.

This article aims to denounce the persistence of the old stereotype about homeless people. Sadly history and literature are at the origin of this social construction that caricatures beggars; setting them us as escape goats for just about any social problem we face. Through qualitative research and more importantly personal experience, I found these old labels currently endure. In this way, the social drama of the homeless is never quite understood in its depth. All the public seems to receive, are deformed images of a grotesque and violent world that produces compassion, passivity and dislike; all at the same time. According to Ivan Parro, questioning stereotypes and a more humane approach to the problem can be a first step forward in adopting a more genuine and caring attitude by everyone. Like many of my articles, this one is a bit lengthy; even though I have chosen but a few extracts of the presented thesis in an effort not to tire people with so much research and statistics, I hope you find it in your heart to read this through to the end. After all our homeless are people just like us; they laugh, they cry, they fear, they rage, they dream and hope…just like any of us do; they are HUMAN.

I am a beggar, a homeless man, an undesirable, a homeless child. To you I am nobody and deserving of no dignity. I have no roof to shelter me or family to love me. To tourism I am no better than pollution. I have no honor, I am a homeless man”

Extracts from Ivan Parro’s Thesis…

“This paper aims to get closer to the reality of a very specific social problem. It is a matter which appears before us without the need to turn on the TV or the radio. We can see them in any of our cities, lying in parks or banks, dragging their “present” and tormented by their future. The existence of the vagabonds is immemorial. I will start my work with the hypothesis of disinterest and mistrust most people feel towards those who wander the streets. This perception, translated into attitudes of rejection, is rooted on what they are fed by mass media. Mass media doesn’t usually offer a realistic, true and humane view of the problem of poverty in general and in particular, homeless people. I propose a more humane approach as a collective, not with stereotypes or preconceived labels that could only lead to false interpretations. I also aim to find out what reasons lie under all those topics created from popular imagery, which have not served more than to encourage the marginalization of these people.

Following the selection of news and articles on the subject, from national and international press; which I catalogued and contrasted, I’ve formulated the conclusion the press rather than showing their humanity, encourages their social marginalization”

*The following account refers to a personal experience by the author:

“At the front door of a well-known supermarket is someone who opens and closes the door, as if he were the doorman of the facility. He asks for food and some charity. Some people seem delighted by the beggar’s generous initiative but many go without offering him anything in exchange for his curtesy and service. He finds it hard, for his body looks weak, thin, delicate. He is ill but no one cares. He keeps begging for food but many rather spend on trivialities than to share a miserable amount on him. My friend and I are shopping there, as we leave we realized there is something missing; food for the gentleman who opened the door for us. We realize sparing a bit of what we have would not leave us broke but would make his day. When we give him the groceries, the man smiles, thanks us, says we behaved very well towards him, and begins to tell us his story. The story of his life, his bad luck, a broken family, and the fall of his inner world. A nice man who was fired, unable to find work close to his home, ruminating on his problems, his concerns, and all his now death dreams. He was forced to leave his wife and two daughters whom he cries for whenever their memory resurfaces. Now about to be thrown out of the room he rents, he was forced to the street to beg for charity, to beg for mercy”

“I selected this story because it alludes so much to the way many people react. It is not my desire to criticize on people’s attitudes towards poverty, which are usually two: indifference or help; I simply hope to help others understand behind every homeless person there is a real human being, a very real story. We pretend we care and consider ourselves emotional creatures while choosing to look away and dismissing them as easily as we dismiss our recycling”

“Typically homeless people are usually grouped into the following large groups: People who subsist on begging and live in shanty or sporadic in hostels. People who live in hostels, rotating among themselves and who usually perform timely work (moving things, handyman, handing out propaganda, playing for others). People who live by begging and don’t go to shelters, sleeping in the street. Others: people with mental problems, drug addicts or immigrants without resources. Each group presents a different challenge and different needs. One can’t treat a young man who ends up on the street after being abandoned or having abandoned his family, in the same way one would treat an immigrant fleeing his country seeking better conditions; each one should be treated humanly but cases require different approaches to solve the root issue at hand. Similarly, one has to make a distinction between the classic beggars and wanderers, who make their situation a professional way of life, from marginalized people whose current situation was imposed on them. This approach is quite similar to the approach police use when contrasting abuse against willful prostitution. One can’t treat a woman who is forced to sell her body due to extreme circumstances or by those who chose to traffic her, the same way one would treat a woman who freely abuses her body for the sick pleasure of others. We need to be clear on the distinctions of each case”.

“Many of the homeless are young and quite mature but find themselves living on the streets due to lack of proper employment. There are even married people who have lost their jobs and after living a season with their in-laws, face the frustration of not being able to support themselves and their children which often forces them to give their children up to the State. Some leave for bigger cities but the possibilities of work are minimal and they choose not to go back for the same reason they left: failure and deteriorated relationships”

“In my research work, it was not surprising to find out that the homeless have very poor self image. Being marginalized by the rest of society doesn’t help, only pushing them further down the rabbit hole; rejection, losing their dignity while being treated as if they were animals and monsters instead of people. Unable to hope for a better future, many feel anger and frustration which can lead to substance abuse in order to cope”

First you start to drink or do drugs to escape the past. Later you do it to escape your present. Why keep living when everyone else hopes you die soon.

Homeless man

“The study proved the variety of cases, yet there seems to be an underlying commonality which the media isn’t willing to emphasize when broadcasting stories about them: Family or affective rupture, poor troubled and/or violent families, having been raised from one place to another (instability), loss of employment, addictions, difficulty relating to others due to trauma or cynicism, propensity for serious diseases, no education, xenophobia and lastly mental illness. Unlike most people think, my research shows most homelessness doesn’t start with mental illness, this is often the result of years of substance abuse, this is why we can’t continue the label: “homeless people are mentally ill, that is why they live as such”.

“To understand the stereotype about the homeless that has reached us today, it is best to look at history and what has been written about them. To begin with, it should be emphasized that “history” on poverty and misery is old and rich in testimonials. We can see a rise in writings about them from the 17th century and on, always considering the homeless man or woman a malicious figure or someone to be abused. At all times what stood out were negative or unfortunate aspects of these people. A clear dividing line was marked between them and the rest of the people, to do so encouraged their marginalization, not receiving shelter, charity and of course work.”

“During the early 1980s begging was used politically in newspapers, linking homelessness to unemployment and being blamed for the uncertainty citizens were experiencing during those times. But were the homeless the cause for more unemployment or simply victims of it? Press headlines are often striking, with eloquent words that capture the reader’s attention, the content focuses on denouncing the situation but nothing beyond a simple presentation of the subject. Very few articles have been written with a personal approach towards the lives of these people. The image the media offers is usually detached, just enough to get your attention but not enough to wake you up to the reality they live in or to concern yourself with the root of the problem. Children who grew up neglected, illness, alcoholism, drugs, abuse or prostitution, all aspects that should be properly analyzed so as not to create confusion within readers that lead to cosmetic solutions. A stereotypical image does not allow any kind of proper solution, for it often reflects only a minimal, almost anecdotal part of their reality. Other times, the media simply provides us with more false information. The subject of homelessness has been used by politicians one way or another, either promising help or promising to get rid of them, but only so far as to get reelected”

**Although the above extracts offer a crude if not critical view on “mass media”, it is important to recognize that in more recent years more and more awareness has been raised on the roots of the subject; however when times get tough, it is our homeless who are the first to be dismissed and forgotten; that is why I chose to present you this article.

Let us not forget we are all human and we are simply one “bad” decision or event away from simply losing the life style we are accustomed to; so instead of looking down on them, try to relate to them. When I have been around them, what I notice the most is not just the gratitude they express for any material or psychological help they may get, but the genuine look of gratitude when one takes the time to listen to them; better yet, give them a loving hug and you will often see their face look shocked, but after that millisecond what will strike you the most will be the look of happiness–joy that someone wasn’t afraid to touch them, to look at them like another human being.

At times I’ve been asked if I am not concerned or afraid when I touch them or when I take my daughters to help out. I have been asked if I am not worried their smell may stick to my clothes or worried their dirty clothes may stain mine; my response to them is this: One doesn’t have to be homeless to do bad, hence I am cautious where and to whom I expose my daughters. The smell is that of a beautiful human being who suffers and their “dirty” clothes touching mine doesn’t bother me, after all I have the luxury to simply change clothes, they don’t. More importantly I know what it feels to yearn for caring love, for a genuine clean hug, and I know the power and impact receiving these can have on our spirit; sometimes it is all you need to remind yourself you are still worthy of love….that you are still human!

By Sofia Falcone

I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges, victories, hopes and learnings, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves!

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